Will Asian Americans Vote?

AP Photo/John Locher

Cynthia Ameli, center, a Chinese-American, picks up materials from Sarah Gibson before heading out to canvass for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Las Vegas in February 2016. 

It’s no secret that the Asian American vote is currently a hot commodity. In May, a survey showing 66 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) had a favorable view of the Democratic Party garnered the attention of the media and presidential candidates alike. But despite being the fastest growing racial minority in the country, Asian Americans have notoriously low voter turn-out rates, and have had, until recently, a reputation for splitting their votes between the two parties. 

It’s no wonder, then, that Asian Americans have been largely ignored in national and local elections alike. With only a 48 percent voter turnout rate in the 2012 election, and with 37 percent of Asian Americans saying they were “too busy” to vote in the 2010 elections, they’ve been low on campaign strategists’ list of key voting blocs. There has also historically been little voter outreach from either major party: 62 percent of Asian Americans surveyed this past May reported no contact from Democratic campaigns and 73 percent reported no contact from Republicans campaigns. But with their numbers steadily rising and their movement towards Democratic candidates evident in multiple surveys, there is no doubt that the Asian American vote can provide a major boost this election season up and down the ticket.

So what is stopping them from going to the polls? Ultimately, it may be a traditional culture that discourages political engagement and visibility—and that discourages challenges to traditions.

To Alton Wang, the Communications and Development Associate at Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote), the problem goes well beyond the appeal (or lack thereof) of candidates and their policies. With 74 percent of Asian American adults born abroad and a 35 percent limited English proficiency rate, language stands as a giant barrier blocking many AAPI voters to the polls. Although the Voting Rights Act mandates translated voting materials, there are many instances of voting centers lacking these materials, and a few cases of voting centers withholding translated ballots. “If jurisdictions don’t translate ballots properly that provides huge challenges and barriers of perception and what it means to be AAPI in this culture,” Wang says.

It’s not as if Asian Americans haven’t been following this year’s campaigns. In fact, 51 percent say that they are following this election more closely (compared to 28 percent in 2014) and are “paying close attention to political discourse”. They also have clear preferences on numerous issues, including gun control, immigration, and environmental questions. The technicalities of elections, however, pose problems. “When you give [Asian Americans] an English ballot, they might not be able to understand the specific terms unique to our electoral or representational system” says Wang. Compounding these difficulties, there are over a dozen ethnicities within the AAPI umbrella, resulting in various disparities in language, resources, community infrastructure, culture, and ethnic engagement that other minorities (such as Hispanics) may not have to the same extent.

But there is one thing that is universal. “People come to the U.S. for a reason,” says Wang, “an underlying notion of what America offers you, and part of that package is democracy and representation.” The eagerness to exercise their new rights, however, can be offset by confusion about the electoral process, and anxiety about reaching out and asking questions. “Asking for help is really difficult especially if there is a cultural stigma in our communities about asking for help,” Wang adds. “When it comes to a basic understanding about how the process works, we have to be the ones to reach out and say we can help you and make sure they’re prepared.”  

Increasing Asian American participation requires more than just providing translated voting materials, however. It’s also about finding a voice both politically and culturally, and receiving recognition from established political institutions. Isabella So, former president of the International Asian Council (IAC) and a first generation Filipino-American, says that “we’re in the process of reclaiming both identities—both the American side and the Asian side—and we’re really getting to this point where we have to define and explain that to the public. That includes what our involvement means, what it stands for and where it comes from. Because people will still see us as Asians, and foreigners, and people that follow the model minority myth.” Known as the “model minority,” Asian Americans (as a whole) are often assumed to excel in academics, have lower crime rates, and be generally less “troublesome” than other minorities. In reality, these factors vary tremendously between ethnic groups within the AAPI community. This stereotype of recognized “excellence” not only hurts those that do not live up to that expectation, but also implies a false sense of socioeconomic stability by minimizing the social and political problems they face in American society.     

This lack of recognition hinders political outreach today. “I actually went to an event with a representative for a Senate candidate and a representative for a presidential candidate,” says Tina Maharath, the Ohio field fellow for APIAVote. “I had asked them ‘What is your political strategy towards AAPIs?’ and they blanked. … They’ve been following up with me but none of them are actually doing change in their campaign.” Maharath has been working closely with AAPI communities in Ohio, but with only 287,000 AAPI constituents in Ohio, it has been tough getting politicians to take notice. “My parents were rescued from the country of Laos and they never had the freedom that I did. I want to make sure our voices are heard … but we can’t get that communication out there if we don’t tell the elected officials, ‘Look, there are issues affecting our community and we need help’.”

Some politicians are taking notice. Hillary Clinton has an entire platform dedicated to AAPI issues and launched a targeted voter outreach program this past January. The Republican Party has also instituted the Republican Leadership Initiative to recruit young Asian Americans, though that hardly seems a priority for the party’s presidential candidate.

While it’s fair to blame politicians and policies for not interacting with AAPI communities, the low voter turnout also stems from some immigrants’ inability to reconcile their traditional values and experiences with political engagement.

Austin Ko, a recent college graduate who has worked for the White House AAPI Initiative and the Taiwanese Citizens Association, attributes the lack of engagement in part to Asian Americans’ experiences in their former countries. “Specifically for Taiwan, a lot of immigrants were raised under martial law where you keep your head low and do the safe jobs because you don’t know what’s going to happen to you or your family. So the whole focus is working hard to get ahead and keeping your head low.” 

This may explain why older Asian Americans are less likely to vote. The same beliefs trickle down to Asian American youth—despite their higher rates of higher education achievement.

So, who also ran a voter registration drive through a grant from APIAVote on her college campus, found many AAPI students also shunning political engagement “People would always say ‘it doesn’t matter if I vote, nothing will change,’ but if you engage in a conversation more fully as to why things can change and why their vote does matter, then they start saying, ‘I’m not used to talking about this kind of thing’—which I think is partially a cultural thing. We aren’t used to talking about politics or engaging with socioeconomic problems because that is not what is acceptable at home. Our priorities tend to lie elsewhere [than our parents’], but it does take a conversation to break that.”

A current medical student and former president of the Filipino Student Association, So found herself frustrated with this mentality. “It feels like people are playing into their roles within the model minority myth by not engaging.’”

“We know it’s not just second generation AAPIs that are not voting,” says Wang. “Third, fourth, fifth generation are also not voting—that’s the domino effect. So it's about asking people to vote and engage now. Our studies have shown that if you vote three times in a row you become a lifetime voter. That's a pretty low barrier in the grand scheme of things so all we have to do is get people to the polls.” 

“First generation people who can be allies and spearhead the conversation among their generation is really important,” says Ko. “One of the challenges is in initiating that conversation, or finding the people who are bold enough to start the conversation.” 

For So, starting the conversation may be the hardest part. “We still have this strong rooted sense in Asia. Our parents have this strong rooted sense in Asia and there is so much of that that they bring here and so much of that that we still relied on growing up.” There is also a cultural sense of filial respect. “There's always that sense of piety when you treat your parents. So to speak up against what they believe in, or what they came to this country believing in, it almost seems offensive. You always have to tread carefully here because they sacrificed a lot so you can have the ability to speak the way you do.”  

“There is a divide between our parents, our grandparents, and us,” says Ko. “Even though we might be multi-lingual, it is hard to have these conversations [about politics]. You see on TV all these American families talking about politics and talking about social issues, but with Asian Americans it’s really hard to find the words to do that and to find the context within the Asian family.” 

But for So and Ko, coming to terms with their Asian American identity means coming to terms with the opportunities and responsibilities that America affords them.

“It's a privilege to be able to vote—and to be so apathetic about what goes on in the government,” says So. “To think that nothing in the government affects you negatively is a privilege.” A privilege that her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. as Filipino refugees, did not have. By not voting, however, Asian Americans make it likely that fewer things the government does affect them positively. “There's always this topic of civic engagement, and the thing is voting has that direct implication of representation with it whether it’s for Congress or local government. Politicians aren’t seeing us in the polls,” she says, “so they aren’t thinking that we have problems that we need addressed.”

For Wang and APIAVote, then, getting out the vote is more than just fulfilling a political agenda. “Even though our work is metrically about how many voters we can register, how many people vote in elections, or the data we collect, what’s more important is that it’s erasing the stigma of being engaged in the political process, while also building the next generation of leaders.”

The groundwork is slowly beginning to come into place. With 14 elected officials in Congress who identify as Asian American/Pacific Islander, Asian America has not only proven itself to be a potential force in the polls, but also a distinct grouping in Congress. But to expand their foothold in the American political narrative, the younger generation will have to break the cycle of political apathy and set a new trend of political engagement. 

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