By 10 AM, over 200 ballots had been cast at the JP Stevens High School in Edison, New Jersey. By 12 PM, poll workers expected to run out of paper ballots.

Indian-American voter turnout over the past week has hit record highs, and Election Day turnout at a polling site in Middlesex County in central New Jersey was no less. The county has one of the highest concentrations of Indians in the US, and is often referred to as “Little India.” visited Edison, New Jersey to meet Indian American voters.

“Even though I’ve been eligible to vote for the last two elections, this is the first time I’m voting,” said Edison resident Narendra Kanchi, who voted for the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket. “The only reason is Trump and his racism. I want to make my vote count,” he said, adding that he felt empowered after he voted.

Engagement within the South Asian community has been higher than previous years, with many groups mobilising specifically to target the Indian American voting bloc. Milli, a graduate student at Columbia University and a poll worker, said she was complacent during the last election and didn’t vote: this year, she’s making up for it by volunteering as a poll worker to validate ballots and ensure there’s no voter fraud. “I voted early for Biden and Harris,” she said.

How democracy works

Young and old voters alike cast their ballots in the high school gym while safely observing COVID protocols. The oldest voter met was 84-year-old Sharadaben Patel, who speaks only Gujarati. She was accompanied by a worker from her daycare, who translated for her and said she had had difficult voting by mail, but still wanted her vote to count.

Suyag Gandhi brought his children with him to cast his vote. “I want to introduce my children to the voting process. It is important for them to see how democracy works,” he said, and added that his children have been debating him to influence his vote.

Voters at the JP Stevens High School in Edison, New Jersey.

When asked who they thought their father should vote for, both had answers ready. Guru, 12, thinks his father should vote for the Democrats because he believes they’re trying to improve the country. His eight-year-old sister, Radhika, had a more specific answer: “My father should vote for Biden, because he wants to stop guns,” she said.

First-time voters and JP Stevens graduates Alekhya Buntla, 18, and Srinvasan Ramakrishnan, 19, were looking forward to participating in the election but were not as enthusiastic about their options. Buntla said she was settling for Biden as a lesser of two evils, while Ramakrishnan said he was voting for Trump mainly because his parents say he will cut taxes.

Aniket, 19, who graduated from the same high school this year, said he can see why so many people voted for President Trump in 2016. “But in this day and age, you’re either a Biden supporter or a Nazi,” he added.

Pandemic policy

The Covid-19 pandemic remained uppermost in some voters’ minds, and influenced their decisions.

Rupali Shatagar and her daughter Saloni Shatagar both voted for Biden, and came in person because it was convenient, and so that Saloni could experience casting her vote for the first time. “I’m done with Trump,” said Shatagar. “For me, it was his personality. I’m not too into politics, it’s just his foolishness. He hasn’t handled COVID well.”

Like Shatagar, Edison resident Charanjeet Bhatia also dislikes Trump and voted for Biden. “I don’t like Trump’s character, I think he’s a racist,” he said.

However, some voters disagreed with this assessment and are voting for Trump. Retired doctor Ravinder Jain voted for President Trump because he’s “good for the economy,” and an Indian hair stylist who has been living in Edison for six years and requested to stay anonymous said Trump’s unemployment benefits during the pandemic helped her.

“This is my first time voting as a US citizen in an American election, and I voted for Donald Trump. I believe if someone’s being helpful, I should vote for them,” she said. “This was the first time I was receiving unemployment support, and it personally helped me a lot.”

A Gujarati immigrant, who also requested to stay anonymous and is voting in a US election for the first time, echoed these same views a few hours later. While he applied for and finally received unemployment support, he did not find the process easy — unlike his friend in Ohio. According to him, he found the process hard because New Jersey is a blue state while Ohio is a red state.

He said he will also be voting for congressional Democratic candidate Jeff Van Drew because he “solved” a friend’s immigration issue. Jeff Van Drew is currently serving as New Jersey’s representative but is no longer a Democrat, having switched to the Republican Party earlier this year and pledged support to President Trump.

When it comes to immigration and the H-1B visa, this voter trusts Trump and the GOP. “There’s nothing wrong in anything Trump is saying. He’s being honest and fair,” said this voter, who has lived in Edison for just over three years and works in the pharmaceutical industry.

“I’m voting for the future of the country, as well as my children’s future,” he added.

Recent surveys like the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey claimed that while there is a slight drift towards the right, the Indian-American population would remain a Democratic voting bloc, especially after Sen. Kamala Harris was announced as the vice presidential nominee.

According to the survey, 72% of Indian American voters plan on voting for Biden. The survey also noted that issues like healthcare, the economy, and race tensions were more of a priority for voters than foreign policy. However, pollsters have pointed to the “shy Trump voter” phenomenon and believe some voters might have been underplaying their support for President Trump for the fear of being judged.

Satish Rajamani voted for President Trump in 2016, but is voting for Biden this time. Why? “Because my daughter said so,” he said.

Mail-in voting

Several voters came to vote in person over fears that their ballots might be invalidated.

Software engineer and business owner Raghu Daripalli, who has lived in Edison for 25 years, said he wanted the personal satisfaction of knowing his vote would be counted. “I did not want my vote to be invalidated because I really want Biden to win,” he said. “Our American soul is on the line — Trump, under Putin’s influence, is destroying the US,” he added, alluding to concerns over Russian interference in the US elections.

On the other hand, Kavita Kanwar said she trusts the system in place and is not worried about her vote being invalidated. She works in public service and is bipartisan. Her husband, Anurag Kanwar, voted for Trump because he “loves him.”

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund is conducting an exit poll for Asian American voters, which includes Indian-Americans, in 14 states, including New Jersey, and lawyers and volunteers were present at the JP Stevens High School. The exit poll is also meant to document voter problems and the availability of language assistance on Election Day to non-English speaking voters.

“The area has a high Gujarati-speaking population, and we noticed there was no Gujarati bilingual poll worker or interpreter, which is a little concerning,” said Jerry Vattamala, Democracy Program Director at AALDEF. “The signage is required under the Federal Voting Rights Act. This is another reason why we do this, to ensure that poll sites are complying with federal law,” he added. met one poll worker, Meenaxi Dave, who immigrated to the US from Gujarat over 20 years ago and has been a poll worker for three years. Dave directed voters to either drop their mail-in ballots and sign the poll book, or cast their provisional ballot. Provisional ballots are paper ballots that are used at the polling place on election day, and are not counted at the polling place — they are verified and counter by the County Board of Election after polls are closed. New Jersey does not allow machine voting.

One Muslim couple, who requested to stay anonymous, left the polling site to go back home and fill out their vote-by-mail ballots when Dave told them their provisional ballots would not be counted today.

“We’re going back home to do this because we want our votes to be counted today. We’re in a hurry because we want Biden and Harris to win,” they said.

Photos: Vandana Menon