Rocking the vote in Koreatown

Grace Yi, a volunteer at the Korean Resource Center in Koreatown, helps a client fill out a ballot. Last year, she called 3,000 people to ask them to vote.
(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

In the last three elections for mayor of Los Angeles, voter turnout has ranged from 18% to 38%. And that’s of registered voters.

Nice work, loafers.

Of course, the perennial no-shows had their reasons for not voting. Didn’t like any of the candidates. Didn’t know anything about any of them. Nothing ever changes anyway. Went to the beach. Couldn’t care less, blah, blah, blah.

This time around, if you’re thinking you might sacrifice two minutes of your day and cast a ballot on Tuesday — but you’re still not sure — I’m going to offer up a little inspiration. I’m going to take you to the Korean Resource Center in Koreatown.


The woman behind the desk, helping a client with a mail-in ballot, is Grace Yi, and she’s a force. Yi is a retired nurse’s aide, and several times a week, she reports for daylong duty that includes knocking on doors and calling people on the phone, urging them to vote.

“I explain to them why you have to vote, and when you get citizenship, it’s your duty,” said Yi, who was raised in South Korea but moved here 40 years ago.

Senior citizens don’t require much prodding, Yi said. But younger people, who can be arrogant, get on her nerves.

“Smart alecks,” she called them. “Some young men, the first words they speak are, ‘I don’t have time.’ I ask them, ‘Can you take three minutes and make the time?’ Some people just have nasty talk and say, ‘Why do you keep bothering me?’ ”

She keeps bothering them, Yi explains, because if they want better services and schools in their community, they need to let their voices be heard and hold public officials accountable.

“Last year,” said Dayne Lee, a civic participation coordinator at the center, “Grace single-handedly called 3,000 people to tell them to vote.”


Her hustle seems to have paid off. In the past, said Lee, Korean American turnout has lagged behind county averages by about 18%. But in November, Korean Americans closed the gap to just 2%, with close to a 70% turnout (Angelenos vote in far greater numbers in national elections).

Yi, by the way, won’t tell people how to vote, even if they ask. Part of anyone’s civic duty, she said, is to do the research and make informed choices. That’s what Yi did before making up her mind on the race for mayor. She went to a housing forum, studied what the candidates had to say, and became convinced that one of them had the best plan for creating more affordable housing — a big issue in Koreatown.

The day of my visit, one of Yi’s clients was a woman named Sam Lee, who had just become a naturalized citizen the day before. Lee needed help with a healthcare issue and said she would like to vote Tuesday, but she became a citizen too late to register.

She’ll get her chance next time, though, and Yi had her sign a little green card that said, “I Pledge to Vote.” The Korean Resource Center has gotten more than 1,000 of those pledges in the last couple of months.

“I’m part of the community now,” Lee said through an interpreter. “I’m part of the United States, so I can contribute more to the nation.”

Elizabeth Jongran Kim, who helps clients with questions about Medicare coverage, became a citizen two weeks ago. She registered in time to vote in Tuesday’s election in Beverly Hills, where three council seats are open, and said she’s excited about her first American voting experience.


I asked who she was voting for, but she told me to forget it.

“I don’t want to tell you.”

Fair enough. A vote is a very personal thing.

Weekday afternoons, high school volunteers drop by the resource center for work that includes get-out-the-vote phone calls. One of the more spirited participants is Eunice Lee, 18, who commutes from Koreatown to Palisades Charter High School, where she’s senior class president.

That’s two issues right there, Eunice said. The schools in her neighborhood aren’t the best, and getting clear across town to a better school is difficult because traffic is miserable and public transit is … don’t get her started. So she wonders why you’ve got to pound people over the head to get them interested in an election for school board, City Council, mayor and city attorney.

“I see people who are really interested in voting in my leadership class, but everyone else seems to be uninformed, uneducated and unmotivated,” said Eunice, who will attend Tulane University in the fall on a full scholarship.

On Tuesday, by the way, she will cast her first vote, and she’s thrilled. She said she’s given her mother and sister Post-it notes, telling them who she’s voting for, in case they want her advice, and she intends to go to the polls with them and her boyfriend, Samuel Wasserman. He, too, just turned 18 and will be voting for the first time, and don’t tell anyone, but they might not make it to school Tuesday.

“I’m going to make a whole day of it,” Eunice said. “We’ll go vote, and after that, we’ll celebrate.”


“Just a nice Korean barbecue.”

Take that, all you slackers and cynics.