Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, according to U.S. Census data, having nearly doubled their share of the electorate in the past decade.
By the year 2044, Asian Americans are expected to become 10% of all voters nationally, and in Orange County, home to the third-largest Asian American population in the country, their representation in the voting public has already reached nearly 20%.
While Asian Americans are poised to become a powerful force, both in national and local elections, political engagement remains a critical obstacle in unlocking this potential. Despite Asian American voters’ ability to swing elections, political campaigns have been slow to reach out, while the community is also less likely than other racial groups to make it to the polls.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of public policy and political science at UC Riverside and director of the nonpartisan National Asian American Survey. “Especially among the higher-income, more-educated parts of the population, you’d expect to see higher levels of political engagement, so there’s a lot of power that’s going to waste.”
Since most Asian Americans don’t live in battleground states — California alone is home to one-third of all Asian Americans — it’s state and local elections where they can make the biggest impact.
“What we found in the past is that one-third of Asian American voters are undecided about ballot propositions even a month before Election Day,” Ramakrishnan said. “If you do the numbers, that’s 12% of the electorate. If one-third of them are undecided, that’s 4% on ballot propositions that could swing either way, but those campaigns are not engaging with them.”
Karin Wang, vice president of programs and communications for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, agreed.
“You don’t have to be 40% of the population to hold the key to the election,” she said. “Asian Americans make up the winning margin in a lot of state districts. We did an analysis that showed Asian American voters exceeded the margin of victory in a number of key state congressional races.”
Despite Asian Americans’ importance in potentially determining electoral outcomes, the gap between their share of the population and of total votes cast has long persisted. Nationally, Asian Americans are about 5% of the resident population but only 3% of the voting population, and in California, they’re about 15% of residents but only 12% of voters, Ramakrishnan said.
There are three layers to this, he explained. The first is citizenship. Since Asians are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to be foreign-born, many aren’t eligible for citizenship or haven’t yet taken the steps to naturalize.
You don’t have to be 40% of the population to hold the key to the election. Asian Americans make up the winning margin in a lot of state districts.
The reasons for low voter turnout and registration — Ramakrishnan said Asians have the lowest rate in California, “on par with Latinos"— are complex but mainly have to do with language barriers, awareness and poor outreach to Asian American communities.
“Asian American registered voters are the least likely to be contacted by political parties,” said Ramakrishnan. “What you’ll hear is that it’s too expensive to do Asian language outreach because of all the diversity [in languages]. But at the very least they can run ads in ethnic newspapers, which isn’t very expensive to do. There’s certainly more that can be done.”
For Wang, this lack of political engagement also stems from Asian Americans’ history of nonpartisanship. Unlike other racial groups, such as African Americans and Latinos who have historically aligned with the Democratic Party, 30% to 40% of Asian Americans are independents, she said.
“Voter turnout is low in Asian communities in part because the main mechanism by which it happens in the United States is through parties and candidates,” she said. “If 40% of us aren’t registered, and 35% aren’t registered with a party, we’re not going to be targeted.
“Nobody targets non-party affiliated voters, and if you don’t speak English, you rapidly fall off the list of priorities.”
But after the 2012 presidential election, things started to change.
While more than half of all Asian and Pacific Islander-registered voters identify as independents, exit polling after the 2012 election showed that 73% of them voted for Barack Obama, a rate higher than any other racial, age, gender or income group except African Americans, according to exit polling conducted by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.
Obama also won every segment of Asian American populations, including Vietnamese and Filipinos, who have historically leaned Republican, according to a report by the nonpartisan groups Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, the National Asian American Survey and the Asian American Justice Center.
“Up until 2012, Asian Americans never got mentioned in the election coverage,” Wang said. “And as they showed strong support for Obama, it pushed them onto the national radar, so that people sat up and said, ‘Asian Americans might actually be important.’”
Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County, said the 2012 election was “a real wakeup call” for the GOP.
“Not only did Mitt Romney do poorly with Latinos,” Whitaker said, “but he also did poorly with Asians, so we really redoubled our efforts and worked with targeted areas in recruiting candidates that fit the demographic of those areas.”
According to Whitaker, the local GOP created mailings in several languages — including Vietnamese, Korean and Mandarin — used bilingual volunteers to man phone banks and canvass in Asian communities and devoted considerable resources to supporting Asian American Republican candidates in Orange County.
Two years later, South Korean-born Young Kim and Taiwanese-born Ling Ling Chang won seats in the state Assembly, Vietnamese-born Janet Nguyen won a seat on the state Senate, and South Korean-born Michelle Steel and Japanese American Lisa Bartlett won seats on the Board of Supervisors.
The next year, Vietnamese-born Andrew Do won a special election for a supervisorial seat, and for the first time in its history, the county governing body became majority Asian.
“A community is more likely to trust someone who has their same shared experience, their same culture,” Whitaker said. “As demographics shift, we need to make sure that we have representatives coming out of the communities themselves.”
Whitaker said that party outreach to the large Korean American community in Irvine was also instrumental in flipping the mayor’s office and City Council from a Democratic to Republican majority in recent years.
The Republican mayor of Irvine, Steven Choi, who was born in South Korea, said that while he doesn’t specifically target Asian or Korean American voters when campaigning, he hopes that his presence in politics inspires others from his community to follow a similar path. Choi is also running for state Assembly this fall.
“I hope that the impact of my political visibility is that people see me from far away and say, ‘He’s a first-generation immigrant with an accent, so why not me?’”
On the other hand, Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen, a Democrat, said his campaigns for mayor and U.S. Congress have made special appeals to Asian American voters, including attending community events in Little Saigon, using Vietnamese-language advertising and bilingual phone banking.
“Politicians need to have a relationship with the people they’re serving or seeking to serve,” he said.
In 2014, Nguyen, who was born in a Doctors Without Borders camp in Thailand after his parents fled Vietnam, became the first Asian American mayor of Garden Grove. He is also the city’s first openly gay mayor.
“When [elders in the community] hear me speak about my family’s experience escaping communist Vietnam, and having been born in a refugee camp, they know I will never forget where I came from,” said Nguyen, who is running for U.S. Congress this fall.
“It is through experiencing our own personal struggles and pain that allows us to empathize with the struggles of others and reach out in service. That’s something I want to practice and something that’s missing in American politics.”
Local nonpartisan groups, such as the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance, are also working to get more Asian Americans to the polls. Ahead of the June primaries, OCAPICA used bilingual student volunteers to reach 40,000 Asian American voters in Orange County.
“We can reach out to our Asian American communities and talk to them in their own language,” said Joyce Kim, a community organizer for OCAPICA. “We usually remind them about the upcoming election, tell them where their polling place may be, answer any questions they may have, and get their opinion on different propositions. We don’t tell them how to vote. We’re here to educate.”
Wang noted that many other Asian American organizations are also moving into this arena.
“We’ve seen a real growth in the last four years of Asian American nonprofit organizations stepping into the civic engagement space,” she said. “I think it’s because our community has been viewed as apolitical for so long. There are more healthcare clinics or social service providers taking steps to encourage clients to become citizens, and encouraging them to vote if they’re eligible.”
And this year, Wang is seeing more local Asian Americans becoming politically engaged than before.
“The number of people applying for citizenship has skyrocketed this year in the Asian community, people saying they want to vote in November,” she said. “There’s been a lot of rhetoric [in the presidential campaign] that’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-China, and it has kind of empowered people who want to do something.”
The local voters who are targeted by phone bankers from nonpartisan groups, such as Wang’s Asian Americans Advancing Justice, are eager to be engaged, she said.
“We find that when we phone call in Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, people are very receptive because they’re not used to being targeted,” she said. “It’s different from your average Democrat or Republican English speaker, who’s tired of mailers because they’re inundated.”
But there’s still a long way to go.
Ruby Rodriguez, a policy program intern at OCAPICA, made more than 300 calls to local Asian American households, encouraging them to vote in the June primaries, but found that many are still skeptical of political engagement.
“They’re like, ‘Why are you calling? Why are you doing this?’” she said. “What I sense when I’ve been calling is a strong distrust of the government. It’s like, ‘Oh, well, they’re not fully representing us.’ We don’t want them to feel that way, so we’re trying to say, ‘Hey, your vote matters too.’”
And Choi said that even though the Asian American community has ballooned to 40% of Irvine’s population, Asian American voter turnout has remained lower than average.
“It is so disappointing,” he said. “When there are this many high-level candidates, they should be excited.”
After all, he said, voting is the most important way for Asian Americans to exert their political influence.
“If you want to have your voice heard, you need to come out to vote,” said Choi. “If 80 or 90% of the Asian American community came out to vote, then it will be a power future candidates cannot ignore.”