The Asian American Vote

It’s not surprising that many Asian Americans feel excluded from American politics because, in both cultural and systemic ways, they are.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Vivian Teo

In the immigrant family in which I’ve grown up, discussions on political issues make their way from the news to our dinner table and end with a “Well, we can’t do anything about it...” from my parents. My brother and I are U.S. citizens, and my parents have worked in this country for over 20 years, yet we have never felt that it has been our place to speak out and build change on the issues that affect us. We are not alone: each election cycle seems to reaffirm the lack of Asian American engagement in American politics, usually written off as political apathy. This assumption is harmful to the millions of American voices that it discounts and to our democracy. It’s not that members of my family aren’t interested in civic participation; they just don’t see it as an option for them. It’s not surprising that many Asian Americans feel excluded from American politics because, in both cultural and systemic ways, we are.

Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic group in the United States because we are largely composed of immigrants who continue to arrive seeking opportunities. Thus, English proficiency is an issue for many, hindering their participation in voting. According to the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Asian American eligible voters speak English at home or speak English “very well,” which is low compared to the 80 percent among Hispanic, 98 percent among Black, and 99 percent among white eligible voters who say the same.

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires that translated materials be made available at polls in communities with eligible voters who are part of language minorities or do not speak English well. However, the follow-through on this policy is abysmal, as it was for suffrage acts like the 15th and 19th Amendments, which were constantly undermined by voter suppression techniques. A 2012 study found that 45 percent of precincts had missing or poorly displayed information. In some cases, poll workers were unable or unwilling to provide translated material in Asian languages. The lack of resources available for closing the language gap prevents many Asian American voters from entering polling booths as informed and empowered voters.

Beyond the language in which Asian Americans receive voting information, whether they receive information at all is also a concern. Voter engagement is a two-way street: candidates rope in our attention, and voters lean toward the candidate who best acknowledges their needs and beliefs. Yet, a survey conducted after the 2016 election revealed that only 29 percent of Asian American voters were contacted by any political party. Campaigns rarely direct outreach toward the Asian American electorate, citing low voter turnout in these communities and the difficulty of predicting where the Asian American vote would go.

This is where a vicious cycle arises: Asian Americans don’t show up at the polls because no one is reaching out to them, and the low turnout disincentivizes politicians to target outreach to Asian American communities, leaving the voices of these communities unheard and undervalued. Unsurprisingly, 54 percent of Asian American voters feel disengaged from politics because they believe that politicians don’t care about what they think. It is clear that politicians are aware of the inadequacy of research regarding Asian American voting engagement, as shown by their uncertainty in reaching out to this population, but they seem to be ignoring it rather than finding ways to interact with their underserved constituents. Imagine if scientists simply ignored variables when conducting experiments because it seemed unlikely that those variables would change anything. Such experiments would be unreliable—even dangerous—and the same is true of the integrity of our democracy when a huge population of citizens is being left out of the loop.

Dissolving the margins that exclude many Asian American voters from American politics requires both community-level and legislative action. The growth in Asian American engagement from 28 to 42 percent between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections is largely due to the tireless efforts of nonprofit organizations that mobilize bilingual volunteers to contact eligible voters in their communities in their native tongues. However, these grassroots efforts lack the resources and reach of the more generously funded campaigns. Some politicians may not invest in outreach to Asian American constituents due to the common misconception that this population is successful and doesn’t need support. Disaggregated data is necessary for dispelling this misconception and revealing the disparities in the Asian American population that are hidden when over 20 ethnicities holding very different values and facing different struggles are limited to ticking either the Asian American or the Pacific Islander boxes. This means that government surveys, like the U.S. Census, must break down Asian ethnicities as to not overlook the smaller ethnic groups, like the Hmong and Burmese, which are usually the most underserved in the Asian American community. This would help politicians see the nuances of needs within our community and give them a better sense of how to effectively target outreach. For instance, the Biden-Harris ticket recently released an agenda detailing their plans to uplift the Asian American community, paying close attention to issue areas specific to us, such as Asian American representation in government, COVID-19 hate crimes, and the Muslim ban. Recruiting bilingual community members to spread the message in-language might be critical to bringing voters to the polls on Election Day.

An effective avenue of communication with non-English proficient voters is ethnic media, which a significant portion of Asian American voters, especially Chinese and Vietnamese voters, say they rely on for political news. Ethnic news sources are opportunities to make eligible voters aware of their voting rights, the voter registration process, and candidate policies in their native languages. Community members should utilize these platforms and perhaps also provide closed captioning in various languages on important broadcasts, such as the presidential debates, to keep their communities informed and engaged.

On Election Day, multiple trained bilingual poll workers, ready to distribute accurately translated documents and assist voters, should be present in the jurisdictions covered by Section 203. In locations that aren’t required to have these resources accessible, people still have the right to bring a translator of their choice into the booth to help them vote. If you are a bilingual Asian American, you can accompany anyone who needs translation assistance into the booth and make sure they are able to make an informed decision.

Kamala Harris’s VP ticket will likely rouse many Asian American voters, as it did in the 2016 Senate election when voters said that they preferred Harris once her South Asian heritage was mentioned. Virginia produced the highest voter turnout among Asian Americans in the entire country in 2016 due to the investment in outreach endeavors from both parties in hopes of capturing every vote possible from the battleground state. When politicians invest in making Asian Americans feel seen, we show up, eager to make a difference in our communities. With the November election looming and a considerable portion of our community undecided in party support, some are referring to the Asian American electorate as a “sleeping giant” in American politics. Let’s wake up and crash some parties.