Group Seeks to Reverse Voter Apathy by Asians

Times Staff Writer

Spurred by a new two-year study showing disappointingly low rates of voter registration among Asian and Pacific Americans, a coalition of 40 groups headed by City Councilman Michael Woo is launching a drive to register thousands of Asian newcomers in the next year.

Leaders of the countywide drive said they hope to improve voter participation throughout the growing Asian community, where, for example, only 4% of Vietnamese over the age of 18 are registered.

The drive--which is nonpartisan and seeks to bring together government agencies, churches and community groups--could add as many as 25,000 Asian and Pacific Americans to county voter rolls by early next year, organizers said.

"It will provide us with an opportunity to tell these newcomers that government can have a positive impact on their lives, that their vote may make the difference in better education for their children, more senior citizen centers for the Asian community and eventually electing more Asians to public office," Woo said.

40-Member Coalition

The yearlong drive sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Voters group, a coalition of 40 community organizations, will begin this month using dozens of volunteers. It will be funded by $10,000 to be raised in the Asian community.

Coalition leaders said the drive grew out of the belief that Asians as a whole and particularly those who have immigrated to Los Angeles County in growing numbers since 1975 represent a potentially significant voter force but largely have been ignored by the two major political parties.

"We're a small but growing force," said Stewart Kwoh, director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, who is organizing the drive. "If our efforts are successful, Asian and Pacific Americans could easily be the swing vote in a number of elections."

Nearly 500,000 Asian and Pacific Americans resided in the county in 1980, about 6% of the population, and many researchers believe that their numbers will double by 1990. More than half of the immigrants naturalized as U.S. citizens last year in Los Angeles County were Asian, Kwoh said.

But the Asian influx that began 10 years ago has not translated into a growing Asian electorate, according to a detailed study to be formally released this week by the UCLA Graduate School of Education. The study examined county voter registration rolls for the June, 1984, primary, unlike previous surveys that relied primarily on telephone surveys.

The study found that the rate of voter registration in all Asian subgroups fell substantially below 60%, the overall rate of registration in Los Angeles County. Japanese-Americans had the highest voter registration rate among Asian subgroups with 43% of those over 18 registered. This was followed by Chinese-Americans with a rate of 35.5%; Samoans, 28.5%; Filipinos, 27%; Indians, 16.7%; Koreans, 13%, and Vietnamese, 4.1%.

Suburban Areas Surveyed

The study surveyed registration rolls for 20 suburban cities as well as the so-called "Asian corridor" of Highland Park, Mt. Washington, Chinatown, Temple, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, East Hollywood and Koreatown.

Don T. Nakanishi, the UCLA professor of education who authored the study, said large numbers of Asians who have immigrated since 1975 have either failed to become citizens or, having been naturalized, do not feel compelled to register to vote.

"Many of these recent immigrants have come from countries where the government is viewed with great suspicion," he said. "Local agencies have done a good job teaching them English and skills to survive but have done little to socialize them politically."

The study also suggests that Asian and Pacific Americans do not represent a solid bloc of voters for either major political party. A significant proportion, about 15%, are registered as independent while 52% are registered as Democrats and 31% as Republicans. Further contributing to a lack of political unity are the differences in party affiliation among the particular subgroups, the study concluded.

Filipinos in Democratic Camp

Filipinos, for example, have the strongest affiliation with the Democratic Party. And there was a plurality of Republicans among Chinese-American voters in half of the cities studied.

"The extent of independent voters was really surprising," Kwoh said. "Neither party has really inspired or reached out to the Asian and Pacific American community."

Kwoh said the participation of churches and government agencies, such as the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, will determine the success of the campaign. He said the group will ask the INS to help reach thousands of potential voters by passing out voter registration forms at citizenship ceremonies.

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