Deepti Jani of New Jersey carries voter registration forms in her purse wherever she goes, whether it is to Indian grocery stores and shopping areas, or when visiting friends. She began doing that months before the Nov. 8, 2017 elections.
Many Indian-Americans and other South Asians also did the same, and they saw the results in their state when numerous Indian-Americans were elected to office up and down the ballot – from Vin Gopal to the N.J. State Senate, to members of several city councils, and the Mayor of Hoboken Ravinder Bhalla.
May 15 is the deadline for registering to vote for the June 5 party primaries in New Jersey, and activists are revving up efforts to register members of the community to increase its clout.
For decades, Indian-Americans did not register in enough numbers to make any impact on the final vote-count, whether it was local offices or even presidential elections where they came out in somewhat larger numbers, says Ritesh Shah, founder of South Asian Registration Initiative. The organization drew out community voters in District 11, Monmouth County, N.J. where Gopal won his upset race.
“Now we are not only on the menu, but also at the table,” Ritesh Shah told Desi Talk. The math showed that just in Monmouth County, where barely 12 percent of South Asian-origin voters cast their ballot before the mobilization drive, something like 40 percent did so on Nov. 8. Now SARI is being approached by several other candidates running for office, like Goutam Jois, candidate for the U.S. Congress from New Jersey’s District 7. “Everywhere I go, I have voter registration forms and try to get people signed up. And in New Jersey, many young people don’t know you can register when you are 17 so that you can vote at 18,” Jois told Desi Talk.
From adjacent New York state, Suraj Patel, who hopes to overthrow long time incumbent Democrat Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, in the June 26 N.Y. primary, has met with SARI, Shah says, but the organization has still to expand its operations.
Upendra Chivukula, former N.J. State Assemblyman, remembers when he started voter registration efforts back in 1992 as part of the Indian American Forum for Political Education, “because our community was very apathetic.” That was 5 years before he ran for office at the local level. “At that time, there were no registration forms with drivers licenses or online, and many (Indians) did not even want to become citizens,” Chivukula told Desi Talk. “The idea of voter registration is to let people know about a voting process that does not require that much commitment,” Chivukula noted.
While registering voters is an ongoing struggle and the process requires also bringing these voters to the polls, “Campaigns are recognizing that you have to be in front of people, and it has to be someone you trust, when you try to get people registered,” says Amit Jani, son of Deepti Jani, and former outreach director for Murphy for Governor campaign and the New Jersey Democratic state party. Like Amit Jani, Indian-Americans are being recruited by various ‘mainstream’ campaigns to reach out to minority communities and also the mainstream.
Ishan Shah, 25, is the ‘Director of Strategic Initiatives’ for multimillionaire pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate who is trying to unseat longtime Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey.
“As a South Asian, in my eyes, outreach to the Indian-American community is extremely important. And just in general, registering Indian-Americans to participate in a democracy is extremely important,” Ishan Shah told Desi Talk. “As our Director of Strategic Initiatives, Ishan plays a critical role in reaching out and engaging with these communities around the state,” Nick Iacovella, press secretary to Hugin, said.
“Registering to vote allows you to directly participate in our democracy and make sure your voice is heard on the issues important to you, your family, and your community,” said Republican Senatorial candidate Hugin in a statement sent exclusively to Desi Talk.
Just a week ago, the Gov. Murphy signed legislation that allows for “automatic” registration when people eligible to vote, apply for a driver’s license or other state ID.
This upcoming Sunday, April 29, SARI is setting up a booth at the Indo-American Cultural Foundation of Central Jersey’s Spring Cultural & Color Festival, schedule to be held at Reichler Park in Monmouth Junction, N.J. “We’re expecting a great turnout, so this is a great opportunity to help support the South Asian community here in Central New Jersey!” says State Senator Gopal in an email, urging volunteers join SARI and register “new voters.”