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Robert Lee Ahn: Election Is an Opportunity for API Community

Ballot problems raise concerns as early voting begins.



Robert Lee Ahn, a Democratic candidate for the 34th Congressional District, says that Tuesday’s special election is a rare opportunity to politically empower the Asian Pacific Islander communities.

Robert Lee Ahn is running for in the April 4 special election for the 34th Congressional District.

“We are all individual fingers. We need to bring the fingers together and make a fist.” Ahn said in an interview with The Rafu Shimpo. “In the district that has all the Asian enclaves, this is a historic opportunity to stand together for a common cause.”

Ahn, an attorney and businessman, has emerged as a top candidate in a crowded field seeking to succeed former Rep. Xavier Becerra, who became state attorney general in January. His campaign has raised the most money so far, energized the Korean American community, and surprised mainstream analysts who assumed the race would be solely fought among Latino candidates.

The top two candidates, regardless of party affiliation, will compete in a runoff on June 6. If elected he would be only the second Korean American to serve in the House of Representatives.

“Right now the Asian vote makes up 36 percent of the total votes cast. It’s been an extraordinary turn of events It’s a testament to the API community that has been historically underrepresented,” Ahn said.

Early voting starts this weekend in the district, which includes Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights. Ahn has hired an election law specialist after it was revealed that some Korean-language sample ballots sent to voters were incorrectly printed. The error, which according to L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan impacted “substantially less than” 777 sample ballots, could lead Korean Americans to cast their vote for the wrong candidate in what is expected to be a low-turnout election.

“A big part of me feels like it’s more than just an error. Mistakes like that just don’t happen. If people voted for the wrong person there has to be a remedy,” Ahn said.

Former Assemblymember Warren Furutani, who has advised Ahn’s campaign, said that the ballot problems are unfortunate and upsetting.

“How would other ethnic groups respond if it happened in their community? People would be up in arms about it,” Furutani said. “A quarter of absentee have come in from Korean American voters. If they’re voting off the sample ballot, how many voted for the wrong person?”

Furutani, who has advocated for more young APIs to enter politics, said he feels that Ahn is highly qualified. “He’s young, he’s accomplished, he’s an attorney who does pro bono work. We need to support the efforts of young candidates and build our bench, build the pipeline because there are a lot of good ones.”

Joon Bang, executive director of the Korean American Coalition-Los Angeles, was also highly critical of the sample ballot error.

“It is deeply disconcerting that Korean American voters still lack access to critical voter information protected under federal law,” Bang said in a statement on Tuesday before the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

In response to complaints, the county registrar has added Korean-speaking staff to the voter hotline and will provide additional signage and information to poll workers to remind voters to carefully review the sample ballot. The County Registrar-Recorder also emphasized that the impact of the bad sample ballots was limited.

“We want to ensure voters are not misled as to the context or scope of any issues impacting the election,” Logan said in a letter to the Korean American Coalition on Wednesday.

Ahn will spend the weekend in the district making a final push before Tuesday’s vote.

“I will be effective on Day One because I will be the only Korean American voice in Congress and only the second in our history. With everything going on with North Korea, we need a Korean American congressmember who speaks the language and understands the politics,” he said.

“I’m not powered by special interests; this is truly a grassroots movement. My only allegiance will be to the residents of the 34th District.”

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