“Can you not use my real name? I didn’t tell any of my friends that I didn’t vote. Being in San Francisco, we know a lot of politically passionate people, and I didn’t want them to judge us.”
Anna, 34, and her husband weren’t the only ones to skip the poll booths this past November. While firm numbers haven’t been released for 2016, Asian Americans—with 47 percent turnout in the 2012 election—have the lowest recorded voter turnout rate of all ethnic groups in the United States. We wanted to know: Why?
When Anna speaks to us, her tone is apologetic. She wasn’t apathetic: “I was devastated by the election results, much more than I realized I would be.”
Still, she’s not sure she would have done things differently had she known how the election was going to turn out. “It wouldn’t have made a difference. California is always going to go blue, whether I’m late for work that day [to vote] or not, so I didn’t see the point,” she reasons, referring to how the election results are determined by electoral college votes.
Many people we surveyed felt the same. Of all the survey participants who did not vote, 70.8 percent said that they would be more inclined to participate if results were determined by a simple popular vote instead.
Another 54 percent indicated that they didn’t have confidence in any of the candidates on the ballot. Aaron, a 38-year-old Google employee living in Brooklyn, New York, said both the Democratic and Republican candidates “disgusted me equally.”
Interestingly enough, there’s another—and perhaps even bigger—factor that prevented Aaron from voting. “I missed the [registration] deadline, and the process was much more confusing than it should be,” Aaron says. He’d just moved back to the U.S. after living in Europe for the last 15 years. When he tried to register via the DMV website, he said, “I wasn’t recognized in the system and ran into a lot of other errors. By the time I figured out I’d have to register another way, I missed the deadline.”
In New York, you must register to vote at least 25 days before the election. To this voter, the deadline made all the difference.
Claire, a 31-year-old also in New York, had trouble with registration too. She was interested in voting, saying she felt this past election had more “dire” consequences than previous ones. Unfortunately, after trying to register for what she thought was the first time—she received multiple notices telling her to register after moving around in NYC—she discovered that she was registered already, in her home state of New Jersey. Her NJ polling place was too far to fit in with her commute, and it was too late to get an absentee ballot.
“I wish there was a better system in place to help people understand how it works, because everyone has a different situation,” Claire says. “And especially for people who don’t even speak English, they’re going to have an even harder time.”
In other cases, it wasn’t so much the language spoken that caused lack of engagement, but what was (or wasn’t) said on the campaign trail. 29.2 percent of our survey participants said they’d be more inclined to vote if the candidates had discussed different issues. As Ben, 26, put it: “I didn’t follow politics closely, but I noticed that whenever politicians talked about how they cared about all Americans, they’d say ‘Black, White, Hispanic. I want to help all Americans.’ Who cares about Asians or Native Americans?”
This election cycle, one candidate did catch his attention: Bernie Sanders. Ben notes the senator’s inclusiveness of Asian Americans in his speeches, and a demonstrated understanding of their history, including a reference to the Japanese internment in the 1940s. “I hadn’t heard this from other politicians. I’d always felt ignored, or like they threw the word [Asian] in once a year to get a vote.” And Ben’s right: Asian Americans are the most ignored voting block of all.
Ben did end up being a first-time voter last year. He explains, “I wasn’t a fan of Hillary. I did think she fell into the category of pandering politicians. But her policies were influenced by Bernie. And the week before the election, I saw an op-ed on NBC attributed to Hillary, addressing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in a way that I thought showed great consideration.”
Of course, reaching Asian Americans isn’t as simple as writing one op-ed. The Asian American population is not static or homogeneous; it is growing and diverse. While we can’t know all the details of why only 47 percent have been showing up at the polls, the survey we conducted and conversations we’ve had give us some insight: It isn’t that Asian Americans don’t care. Only 7 percent of those who didn’t vote on our survey cited not caring about the outcome as a reason.
To make sure that concerned citizens are engaged, the country has a lot of work to do (the voter participation nationwide was only around 58 percent in 2016). For those who feel like their votes don’t matter, we can look at reforming the electoral college. To simplify the registration process, we can pursue enacting automatic voter registration. And it’s up to the candidate to recognize the importance of acknowledging every group’s concerns, including Asian Americans. After all, we’re the fastest growing voting population, and we deserve a much closer look.