Massachusetts elector Wayne Yeh sat in the House Chamber and set up a small picture frame on his desk. The frame held up a photograph of Yeh and his grandmother, Poun Keodouangdy Yeh.
His Laotian grandmother, the first in his family to immigrate to the United States, told Yeh sometime before her death in 2019 not to feel guilty about leaving his family in California and planting roots in Massachusetts. On Monday, he carried her memory with him into the State House in Boston as he voted for the next president and vice president of the United States.
“Now that I’m a member of the Electoral College, I really wanted to bring a piece of her, and she was a really integral part of my life,” said Yeh, 26, of Boston, one of 11 state electors who voted unanimously for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Yeh was one of over 270 electoral votes to back Biden, the second Catholic president, and Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian parents who will be the first female vice president.
But Yeh also made history. He and Jay Rivera, 27, of Lawrence, are the youngest gay electors of color in Massachusetts. Elector Lesley Phillips of Cambridge is the first transgender woman in Massachusetts, and among the first nationwide, to serve as an elector.
Phillips, an alternate, was sworn in after elector Ron Valerio of Auburn died last week. Phillips serves on the board of the Bay State Stonewall Democrats with Rivera and Yeh.
“A few of us ran because we wanted the delegation of the Massachusetts Electoral College to reflect the demographics of Massachusetts, and that’s what’s encouraged me as a young person,” Yeh said.
They were sworn in around 3 p.m. Monday as electors with Kate Donaghue, Thomas Holloway, Joseph Kelly, Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, Thomas Larkin, Robert Markel, Linda Monteiro, Norman Shulman and Teresa Walsh.
Markel, the former Springfield mayor, attended the Archmere Academy in Claymont, Delaware, with Biden. They were not only friends, but groomsmen in each other’s weddings.
The 538 electors had until Dec. 14 to formally vote for president and vice president. In the Nov. 3, election, Biden won with 306 Electoral College votes to President Donald Trump’s 232 Electoral College votes.
More than 3.6 million Massachusetts voters cast their ballots in the Nov. 3 election, setting a new record for turnout during a presidential election year. Biden won 66% of the vote in Massachusetts, which makes up 2% of the electoral vote.
The 2020 election was also the first presidential race where Massachusetts rolled out an expanded mail-in voting system. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted lawmakers to pass a temporary law allowing voters to mail in their ballots to avoid catching and spreading the virus. More than 41% of voters mailed in their ballots in the general election.
Despite some issues with missing applications and ballots, mail-in voting was so popular in Massachusetts, lawmakers and Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin are exploring what it would take to implement a permanent vote-by-mail system.
But first came the meeting of the Electoral College, an event traditionally known for its pomp and circumstance. This year brought no crowds and no feast, just a small group of masked electors who took their places at least 6 feet apart from one another in the House chamber.
A staffer for Galvin’s office passed around a basket, much like those used in Catholic Mass, to collect the electors’ votes. Several electors not only had a mask, but also a hand sanitizer spray on their desks.
LaChapelle wore her grandmother’s nursing cap on a necklace and her great-grandmother’s rosaries as a tribute to her family.
“My gram was a school nurse for 35 years,” LaChapelle said after the meeting. “She just always said, ‘Don’t stop, I stopped too early. Follow your dreams. You can be anything.’”
The state’s nonwhite electors not only highlighted their heritage but the role Black and brown voters across played in the 2020 election.
Rivera said electing Biden will help “restore sense and dignity back to our country,” but he also made the case for moving away from the Electoral College as a way to empower voters, especially Black, Latino and Asian voters who helped turn out for Biden.
“People of color helped to deliver Joe Biden this historic win,” Rivera said. “Yet with all this said, millions of voters across our nation, including people of color, continue to be underrepresented by the current electoral system.”
A supporter of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Yeh said the country must recognize the work of progressive activists and advocates, including Asian Americans. South Asians and Southeast Asians in particular, he said, turned out despite racist attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said he hopes the next administration will focus on family unification and immigration reform, drawing a stark contrast to the vision Trump promised in his first presidential campaign.
“This path forward is the greatest hope for potential for the future of our country, our party and our people – should we choose to lean in and uplift the voices of those often forgotten or left out,” Yeh said.
Yeh’s next stop is Georgia. He plans to spend two weeks with the Asian American Advocacy Fund working on the special Senate election between Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock. His trip is part of Seed the Vote’s efforts to mobilize voters ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff election.
“Being a Bernie Sanders supporter, that was one of the reasons that I wanted to do this,” he said, “to show progressive policies and people who support them do and should have a role in the future of the party.”