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For Asian Americans, 2016 election is shaping up to be a turning point

For Asian Americans, 2016 election is shaping up to be a turning point
Zhou Nan Zhou, left, his wife, Li Li Tan, and their friend, Yulsman Yang -- all originally from China -- wait to cast their ballots Tuesday in New York City. (Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

In the weeks leading up to the election, 67-year-old Soo In Chang called the post office about voter registration forms and pestered the registrar's office with questions about the sample ballot. On Tuesday, she took a bus and a taxi to get to a polling place at Koreatown's Seoul International Park, and stood in a two-hour line snaking around the parking lot in the toasty sun.

Except it wasn't for her own vote. She was here to make sure her friend, 76-year-old Sun Ok Ok, cast her first-ever vote after decades of sitting out on election after election. Chang would go stand in another line at her own polling place later.

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"The only thing we can do to give back to a country that's given us so much is vote," said Chang, clutching a piece of paper on which she had jotted down details on the ballot measures in Korean. "I told her, we have to go do this today."

Asian Americans make up just 4% of the electorate, and in the last presidential election, a modest 47% turned out to vote, far below the national average and lower than other ethnic groups. That was poised to change in this year's election, with estimates of a surge in early voting among Asian Americans in battleground states, an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort focused on Asian communities and heated rhetoric about immigration.

"More and more, immigrants are realizing that they could actually speak up through their vote," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of public policy at UC Riverside. "There's a lot of anxiety and in many quarters, anger, at how the campaigns have played out."

Early data appeared to show Asian American new voters exceeding 2008 and 2012 levels by a significant margin, said Taeku Lee, a professor at UC Berkeley and principal of Asian American Decisions, a political opinion research group. A high percentage of voters surveyed said they voted early, indicating Asian American voters' level of enthusiasm, Lee said.

"It's going to be a turning point in many different respects," he said.

An election eve survey conducted by his group found that on both issues and mood, Asian American voters appeared to favor Hillary Clinton for president, Lee said.

Voters around Southern California in the San Gabriel Valley, Little Saigon and Koreatown talked of a new interest in their communities about taking part in the political process, whether it was because they were strongly for or vehemently against a candidate.

Anna Zhang, 35, said even her many friends who neither speak English nor are American citizens were talking nonstop about the election. Chinese television channels, radio shows and WeChat, the primary social network for mainland Chinese people have all been abuzz with discussions about the election, she said.

Zhang, who emigrated from the Fujian province of China in 2003 and was voting for the second time, said she was casting a ballot to exercise her right as an American. This election has been so divisive, Zhang said, she felt it was important to do her part to get Clinton elected.

"Lots of Chinese people can't understand what's going on as well as other groups," Zhang said in Mandarin. "So they might feel less connection to America. They spend all their time working and focusing on survival."

Jay Kim, 60, said she volunteered for years as a poll worker despite not being able to vote herself, and was always disheartened to see few Korean Americans turning up to cast a ballot. This year felt different, Kim said — elderly Korean women at her hair salon had gotten into a screaming match over presidential politics, and everyone in her family and her church had mailed in their votes early.

After becoming a citizen in recent years, Kim said she was casting her first vote for Donald Trump, something the ladies at the salon gave her a hard time about.

"I've lived in the U.S. for a long time, and I think it's time for a change," she said. "I know he's brash, but I like him as a candidate."

In Orange County's Little Saigon, Billy Le spent the days leading up to Tuesday morning on Vietnamese-language radio to push fellow Vietnamese Americans to leave their homes and vote.

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"I keep hearing excuses about people not having enough time, and really, there's no reason not to do your duty," said Le, a community liaison for the Garden Grove Unified School District and the Westminster Police Department.

Yet for many Asian Americans, who are more likely to be recent immigrants and non-English speakers than the rest of the electorate, voting still involves jumping through many hoops.

Myong Hee Jun, 64, had been eligible to vote for about seven years, but was voting for the first time Tuesday. Her daughter, Christina, helped her register to vote, and accompanied her to the polling place to make sure she'd have no problems voting.

"I'm so glad. I hadn't been doing my duty as a citizen until now," said Jun, who said language barriers and seven a.m. shifts as a cafeteria worker at Los Angeles International Airport had previously made voting a daunting endeavor. But this time, she said, statements by Trump about women and immigrants made her feel compelled to get involved.

"This is the first time she felt like she had to do something," said her daughter Christina, who added that until now, she had been the only one voting in her family.  "I'm a little surprised she's here, but I'm glad she is."

The Asian vote should be more powerful, said Yvon Nguyen, a TV host and producer on a Saigon TV show focusing on pop culture and news.

Nguyen, 33, said immigrants should be the most eager to cast their votes and had the most to lose by remaining apathetic.

"We are big enough to make an impact, yet the public still sees us as weak. We're way too slow rising to our potential," Nguyen said. "We take for granted that we live in a great country."

This year, Rocky Portuguese, 41, was among those less than enthusiastic to go to the polls.

He couldn't get excited about either candidate. He had heard bad things about Hillary's emails, and wasn't a fan of Donald's "big mouth." The ballot arrived in the mail, and sat in his room for weeks unopened, until finally, while watching TV two days ago, he started flipping through it.

He saw propositions about marijuana legalization, drug costs and public transportation. The more he read about them, the more he cared. About two hours before polls closed Tuesday, he showed up to a polling place at a church in Rowland Heights and marked his ballot.

"In the end, these props were more important to me than the presidency," said Portuguese, an accountant and Filipino immigrant.

He voted no on Proposition 61, yes on measure M, and against legalizing weed.

As for the section on presidential candidates, he left it blank.

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For more California news, follow me on Twitter @vicjkim

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