This organization is tapping into a largely unseen voting bloc: the South Asian community
“Until recently, there has not been any South Asian-focused voter turnout efforts. So we’re finally building that,” said Neil Makhija, executive director of Indian American Impact
“I got my second juice offer!” DJ Rekha beamed as they walked toward a group of political canvassers huddled on an Upper Darby street. “That’s my success measurer.”
Hundreds of people predominantly of South Asian descent fanned out in areas of Upper Darby with high concentrations of South Asians on Sunday to motivate the community to vote on Tuesday. Organized by the nationwide nonprofit Indian American Impact, Sunday’s political canvassing stressed one major point to every person who answered the door: Your vote matters, and can make a difference in this election.
“We can make the margin in Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona, Texas — all of these states,” said Neil Makhija, executive director of Impact. “And until recently, there has not been any South Asian-focused voter turnout efforts. So we’re finally building that.”
Some Upper Darby residents opened their front doors to find Rekha, known for founding Basement Banghra, an annual dance party in NYC that popularized the fusion of traditional Indian bhangra music with hip hop, in New York City; model and television host Padma Lakshmi; lawyer and activist Meena Harris; and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian American woman elected to Congress.
The sheer volume and prominence of volunteers, who traveled near and far for the event, demonstrated the nationwide importance of Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat, which could play a role in determining which party controls the Senate.
“I’ve spent my whole life turning out voters to make sure that they understand the power of the vote, and it felt really important to do that with the South Asian American community,” said Jayapal, who was on her second trip to Pennsylvania from Seattle. “I know the stakes. I know what it means to serve with election deniers. I’ve had an abortion myself. And so I feel like this is the moment to say to our community, ‘We have a chance to make an enormous difference in the Senate with John Fetterman.’ ”
One Bangladeshi woman had her infant on her waist and her young daughter running around when she opened her front door to Lakshmi, Harris, and Jayapal. The trio asked her whether she was planning to vote, if she knew where her polling station was, and whether she needed any support to get out and vote on Tuesday — then went on to talk to her about issues at stake, including gun control and immigrant rights.
“This is our home, and the Democratic candidates have been incredibly supportive,” Jayapal told her.
Canvassers emphasized how the U.S. is home, and the importance of recognizing that and giving the community more resources and support to get their voices heard.
“We’re the fastest-growing minority group. We contribute to the economy,” Lakshmi said. “It’s about time that we voiced our needs and our opinions about where those tax dollars should go.”
Because a large wave of immigration from South Asian countries came after 1965, volunteers said, many immigrants were too focused on either surviving in a new country or not ruffling any feathers to get politically engaged. But with subsequent generations on the rise, more attention is being paid to this powerful voting block, which Makhija estimated to be around 100,000 in Pennsylvania.
“Most immigrant communities start confined to particular roles in society, and we don’t necessarily see ourselves in leadership,” said Makhija, whose parents are immigrants from India. “But that’s what changes over time as you get established.”
By focusing on the issues important to the community — education, health care, public safety, immigration — and targeting communication efforts (Makhija’s team has been doing canvassing through WhatsApp, a messaging platform popular in immigrant communities), campaigns are better able to reach this untapped voter bloc, Makhija said. And bringing people outside the political system, such as Lakshmi (who Makhija said polled at 50 points above anyone else in popularity when surveying the South Asian community), is another strategy to mobilize voters.
“Our whole point is to change the electorate, so you have to bring people from arts and culture in order to pique their attention,” Makhija said. “If you just keep bringing the same politicians, you’re not going to inspire new people to vote.”