Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) – a diverse demographic encompassing dozens of nationalities – make up 4% of America's voting population, and their numbers are on the rise. A survey conducted just after the 2012 presidential election cites a 46% increase in the AAPI population between 2000 and 2010, and in the last five years, Asians have surpassed Hispanics as the “largest group of new immigrants.” A recent report by the Center for American Progress projects that the AAPI community will account for 10% of eligible voters by 2044.
As such, AAPI citizens constitute a potentially powerful slice of the electorate; yet of all minority groups, they are the least inclined to exercise their franchise. According to the Pew Research Center, 31% of eligible Asian Americans voted in the 2010 midterm elections, compared with 44% of African Americans and 49% of Caucasian Americans. Among college-educated voters, who typically turn out in larger numbers, the statistics are similarly low: 40% of AAPI college graduates made it to the polls in 2010, as opposed to 50% of Hispanic, 57% of black, and 64% of white graduates. When questioned about their apparent indifference, 37% of AAPI respondents selected “too busy” as their excuse. Yet there may be more systemic factors underlying this lack of civic engagement.
As a group, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders do not exhibit strong partisan affiliations. According to a 2014 survey, 37% of polled AAPI voters self-identify as Democrats, 17% self-identify as Republicans, and 45% profess no preference or indicate that they “don’t think in terms of political parties.” This seeming ambivalence is apparently mutual, as demonstrated by low rates of campaign outreach to the AAPI community. In the weeks preceding the 2012 presidential race, only 48% of AAPI voters were contacted by Democratic organizations and 36% were contacted by Republicans. Over the past few months – with midterm elections looming – these numbers were smaller still: 34% and 26%, respectively.
Language barriers could also partially account for low turnout. The Pew Research Center states that 74% of adult Asian Americans are first-generation immigrants, and according to the 2012 post-election survey, 44% of AAPI voters profess to struggle with English. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, an amendment that dates to 1975, stipulates that jurisdictions where 5% of the local electorate speaks a minority language must make special provisions for these constituents, such as distributing bilingual campaign materials before the election and appointing bilingual personnel to staff the polling stations. Section 203 is in effect on behalf of AAPI voters in 22 counties: eight in California, three in New York, two in Hawai‘i, two in Alaska, and one each in Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Texas, and Washington State.
A number of nonpartisan, community-based organizations – including APIAVote, Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) – promote active civic engagement in Asian immigrant communities. APIAVote and the AAJC organize Asian language “election protection hotlines” and circulate multilingual pamphlets detailing voting procedures and rights. Under the auspices of the Annual Asian American Election Protection Project, the AALDEF trains volunteers to monitor election proceedings and collect complaints of race or language-related disenfranchisement. Organizations such as these are growing in number and prominence: in 2012, there were 154 AAPI voter-registration initiatives, whereas this past September there were no fewer than 317. And they aren’t just for show: in the states where these institutions operate, AAPI voting rates are considerably higher than the national average.
The impact of Asian American and Pacific Islander voting trends on general elections was notable in 2012 and has become even more pronounced in the intervening years. As these populations continue to soar, and with Capitol Hill becoming ever more divided along partisan lines, the AAPI constituency may prove to be a decisive piece of the electoral puzzle this November.
Olivia Waring is a graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities and a Research Intern at the East West Center in Washington DC.