Not Yet Old Enough to Vote, Young Canvassers Target Communities With Low Turnout

Julia Chow (left, black jacket) canvassed in Boston's Chinatown ahead of the mayoral election to double turnout in the community. (Photo by Hannah Green/BU News Service)

By Hannah Green
Boston University News Service

BOSTON – Julia Chow stepped out of the harsh wind and into the alcove of a small Chinatown apartment building, pushing her sunglasses onto her head to hold back her long black hair. With two weeks until the Boston mayoral election, she rang the bell at the first ground-floor apartment.

A chime echoed inside as Chow briefly waved purple Michelle Wu flyers in front of the peephole and straightened her shirt — a black tank top with a flaming white guitar over the words “Rotten Youth.”

“In our culture, you don’t expect strangers to come to your house,” the 17-year-old from Weston explained. “They think it’s an ad or something.”

The door hesitantly opened to reveal an elderly Asian American woman and a chain lock taut in front of her small face. She gave Chow and her fellow canvasser, 16-year-old Skyler Zhou, just a few inches of trust. Chow greeted the woman in Cantonese and asked if she knew about the mayoral election. Within a minute, the door shut.

“She had no idea who [Wu] was. That response is very common in Chinatown. Then they just don’t want to talk so they shut the door,” Chow said. “But giving this [campaign material] to them helps. Because they can read it and they know a little bit. But it’s hard.”

Voter turnout among the Asian American community has increased nationwide over the years, hitting 59% in 2020, according to Census data. Yet in Boston’s Chinatown, a refuge for Asian immigrants since the 19th century, only 20% of registered voters went to the polls for the September 2021 primary. In Chinatown and citywide, voter turnout failed to hit the number of votes cast in the September 2013 preliminary election that Marty Walsh ultimately won.

Chow grew up witnessing this political disengagement in her family and community. Throughout the run-up to the mayoral election, she and her fellow canvassers dedicated themselves to trying to double Chinatown’s turnout rate and elect the city’s first Asian American mayor in the process.

Every weekend since March, Chow drove from her parents’ white ranch in Weston to Boston. She was trained in canvassing by one of Wu’s college friends in Allston-Brighton, then moved into Chinatown after the September primary.

Chow’s parents didn’t initially understand her weekend trips. Wai and Yijun (Vivian) Chow met in Boston after emigrating from China. Her mother is a doctor in Chinatown, and her father is a retired MBTA worker. Like many Chinese immigrants, Chow said, living under communism taught them not to speak against the government.

“A lot of past events have scarred different generations of families, and them escaping to America has made them too scared to speak up,” Chow said. “A lot of them, and this is for my parents especially, since they escaped already, they think they don’t need to make a change because they’re fine right now.”

After leaving flyers outside several unanswered doors, Chow and Zhou moved on to the next buildings on their list. A woman in a green sweatshirt and jeans chased her wild-haired toddler out one door and took a pamphlet. She said she voted for Wu in September but didn’t know there was a second election. Another woman, 30-something and still in her pajamas, was excited to see Chow and told her she’d already voted by mail.

Zhou, trained in canvassing by Chow, started the previous week. The high school junior dressed casually in basketball shorts and a Nike sweatshirt, but several years on his high school debate team gave him the confidence to approach residents.

He said that while this community is wary of outsiders, Chow’s language skills and undefeatable energy get residents to stop and listen.

“You can tell she honestly does this because she loves it, not for college applications or anything like that,” he said.

Chow and Zhou were met with silence or confusion at the next few doors. After nearly two hours, they reached the last stop on their list. A middle-aged man in a white shirt emblazoned with a green dragon answered. After speaking to Chow for a minute, he took a flyer and closed the door.  

“They didn’t even know there was a second election. They thought she lost,” Chow said. “This is what I’m saying. Since they’re not choosing to be a part of it, they purposefully are away from it. They don’t get any information whatsoever.”

On this day, the pair knocked on 35 doors and interacted with around 70 Chinatown residents.

“We get doors slammed in our faces a lot,” Zhou said as they walked to Chow’s car. “But we don’t let that bother us. We keep going door to door.”

Julia Chow, left, and her mom attended Mayor-elect Michelle Wu’s election night event after Chow had canvassed for Wu in Chinatown. Photo courtesy of Julia Chow

At 7 p.m. on election night, a cluster of pink signs and their handlers dominated the sidewalk outside the Wang YMCA of Chinatown. The eight people holding Annissa Essaibi George signs on wooden stakes towered over the Michelle Wu supporters — two middle-aged men in folding chairs with one purple sign leaning against an armrest. More Wu supporters were here earlier, the men said, but they were the last shift.

Wu was projected by all polls to win the general election. But at Chinatown’s main polling location, it was not yet clear who would dominate.

Inside the gym, the warden started to lay out the mail-in ballots for Ward 3 Precinct 8 on a plastic picnic table. With one hour left, 961 people had come by to vote. In the primary election, the warden said, just under 900 people voted in person. Any chance of doubling those numbers rested on this table.

Less than a mile away, Chow waited with her mother inside Wu’s election party at the Cyclorama, hoping she’d done enough. It was 8 p.m. She still wasn’t sure if the city was ready for a progressive, Asian American leader, or whether Chinatown would turn out to vote.

“I’m so scared. I feel like I’m in a dream right now,” Chow said.

To ease the anxiety, Chow sought movement. She started turning in circles, taking videos of the camera crews, stage and purple-draped walls. She FaceTimed a friend and screamed into the microphone to be heard over the music. Fellow volunteers arrived from Allston-Brighton, and Chow posed in a series of group photos holding Wu signs and smiling from behind masks.

Her mother stood back and watched. Yijun Chow has seen her daughter build her own path over the last few years. At 13, Julia found herself a job at the local supermarket. At 16, she signed up for Wu’s campaign and came into the city alone each weekend.

“She’s very interested in helping the community, and also she’s very independent. She handles everything by herself,” Chow’s mother said. “I also have a son, 14, and a daughter. She’s 6. Julia was teaching them how to help people and do volunteering in school and the community.”

Suddenly, an image of Essaibi George speaking at her event flashed on the screen, with a chyron: “Annissa Essaibi George Concedes Boston Mayoral Race.” It was 10:27 p.m., and the crowd couldn’t contain their excitement.

“Oh my God. What the heck. Is this real?” Julia Chow screamed alongside hundreds of other supporters.

After the screams ebbed, Chow started to weave through the crowd toward her mother, whom she had lost on the packed floor. She found her in the third row, just feet from where Wu would soon stand. The pair hugged and turned toward the stage, where the city’s newly elected mayor was being introduced by her transition director, Dr. Mariel Novas.

Wu walked onto the stage to screams and chants and claps from a sea of supporters. Chow raised her arms and cheered, looking up at Wu in her red dress with an MBTA token on a necklace around her neck. Wu greeted the crowd with, “I love you all.”

At the beginning of 2021, Chow held a Wu sign in Allston-Brighton while hiding behind a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses. She didn’t want to be seen. Now, she feels more confident showing herself to the world.

“My confidence has definitely gotten higher from all the rejections I get. At first it actually hurt. Someone flipped me off the first day of canvassing,” Chow said. “Now I don’t mind. This is what it takes to do the work.”

Chow has started pursuing her own political ambitions. She’s part of the Movement School and Generation Run, programs preparing young people to become the next generation of political organizers. She sees herself working behind the scenes on elections in the future.

And while turnout did not double in Chinatown, it did increase from September to November. City election results show 1,497 ballots were cast at Ward 3 Precinct 8 in the preliminary election. In November, the number was 1,884. Wu won Chinatown by 50 percentage points. In September, her lead ahead of the closest challenger was 27 percentage points.

“A lot of people actually care now. At first, I think it was mostly because of Michelle Wu being an Asian American,” Chow said. “But I definitely think our work is going to keep making an impact. I think more residents will want to vote. I think the next person who runs, they’re going to look at who runs, rather than just ignore the topic and not vote at all.”

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