As Election Day looms closer and closer, people are asking questions that many never thought to ask before. For example: How will Asian Americans vote? An increasing number of articles from NBC to ABC to Zora detail how impactful the Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) vote will be, and if that voting bloc will save us or doom us. Where is all this interest in Asian communities coming from? And why haven’t we garnered this attention in the past?
To understand how our communities’ vote can affect the future, we first need to understand some of the history of the Asian American vote and its subsequent misconceptions. Since the 2000s, Asian Americans have been the fastest growing segment of eligible voters in the United States. While not all Asian Americans are capable of voting due to immigration status or being underage, 57% of us are. According to the Pew Research Center, there are reportedly 11 million AAPIs eligible to vote in 2020 — that’s 5% of the country’s overall potential voters. Within this percentage, there are many different factors that lend themselves towards the variety of voting preferences and choices. In 2018, data showed that most of these eligible voters were majority Chinese, Filipino, and Indian, with Indian Americans being the most likely to vote as a Democrat. (In fact, only 28% of all Asian Americans tend to vote Republican. This leads us to the first myth about Asian American voting.)
In order to debunk these myths, Minh-Thu Pham and Kim Thuy Seelinger, co-founders of New American Voices, help to break down misconceptions. New American Voices, and its current project Asian Americans Against Trump, is a group founded by concerned citizens, educators, nonprofit leaders and others — not campaign leaders or political officials. After seeing how the 2018 midterm election campaigns neglected AAPI communities, the team banded together to reach out to voters and flip swing states to vote blue.
Myth #1: There is an “Asian American” vote, and they voted for Trump.
Untrue. The idea that there is a singular “Asian American” is — by its very origins — a false and homogenizing effect appointed by the “white gaze.” The white gaze produces Orientalism, an enterprise by which white colonialism has constructed dialogue around the people and cultures of Asia, and it produces a distorted representation of a conglomerate “East” in order to maintain dominance and supremacy. Under the umbrella term that is “Asian American,” there are a vast number of races and ethnicities. While most people immediately think of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Indian people, many neglect other eligible voters of other backgrounds, such as those who are from Pakistan, Malaysia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, etc. As we know, only 28% of AAPIs vote as Republicans.
KTS: One thing we do have to acknowledge is that there is no one “Asian American vote.” We’re a diverse group. Even within one subgroup, there are different political leanings, sometimes influenced by the circumstances leading to an individual’s or group’s immigration here. This is important to recognize. It helps to explain some people’s loyalty to the Republican Party. For example, look at Minh-Thu’s and my community: Many older Vietnamese Americans associate the GOP of 2020 with the Republican Party that existed when they fled Communism as refugees in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a powerful association. The Party has changed quite a bit since then, but these associations persist. This is why it’s so important to present the issues, share the data, reach out in media and language that folks actually use. We have to clarify what candidates and parties stand for today, so that voters in all of our communities can make informed decisions.
MTP: Another thing to note in 2016 was that 20% of Asian Americans who usually vote Republican crossed party lines and went for Clinton. A bigger issue is that many Asian Americans didn’t vote [at all] in 2016, and that’s largely because many campaigns don’t reach out to them or court their vote. We hope to change that.
Myth #2: AAPI campaign outreach is “too hard” and not in swing states.
MTP: [There’s] a perception [that] Asian Americans don’t live in battleground states that matter electorally, so people think there’s no need to go after our vote. But actually we think that’s counterintuitive. In battleground states, the margin of victory by definition is narrow and even razor-thin, so to win, every vote really matters; we can’t leave out Asian Americans because we think there are so few of us.
As long as there are enough Asian Americans to meaningfully add to the numbers required to beat Trump, we should go after them. And in principle, in an inclusive democracy, that should happen anyway. I think people are surprised when they learn that Asian Americans do live in swing states and are growing in number. The AAPI electorate in Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona, Florida and Texas has increased by 50% in just the last six years, faster than any other group. I grew up in North Carolina where I was teased in grade school for being Asian or asked if I was Black or white. Now campaigns are trying to court us. I recently had a call with a top candidate in North Carolina who was eager to reach out to the AAPI community in the state.
While it is true that the AAPI population is a diverse community with different languages, political biases, and cultural barriers, these challenges can be and increasingly are overcome, as English proficiency and education rates increase through generations.
Myth #3: Asian Americans only care about “kitchen table” issues.
Kitchen table issues — i.e. issues that affect everyday concerns, such as healthcare, price of groceries and education, and unemployment — are meaningful issues that serve to keep many of the lower and middle class within an income bracket. While the term signals a plethora of important issues that many would deem significant, it still carries a connotation of being meager — perhaps a vestige of the term’s 1988 origins as a way to fight for “women’s issues” as every day importances.
MTP: I don’t think it’s fair to say AAPIs voters only care about kitchen table issues. Almost all voters care about kitchen table issues. Politics is about public decision-making on issues that directly impact our lives. But we also care about values, like dignity, equality, fairness, and opportunity for everyone in our society and not just for ourselves. And I think when we’re more informed about how politics can advance or hinder those values, we’ll be more involved.
Myth #4: The Asian American vote is suppressed.
This is both true and untrue. Yes, voting is suppressed, but it is not done directly.
MTP: A good friend of mine, Bertrall Ross, is an expert in election law and democratic responsiveness and a professor at Berkeley Law. He recently did a really interesting study on passive voter suppression. It showed that the most significant form of voter suppression is not what legislatures are doing to actively suppress the vote, but rather the decision on the part of campaigns to neglect classes of voters. Campaigns use a calculus of contact whereby they decide it’s not worth it to canvass, call, direct political mailers or ads toward, or otherwise conduct voter mobilization activities to court certain voters, even though doing so will have a sizable impact on getting these folks to vote. I’d put some Asian American voters in that category, especially those who have limited English proficiency. When campaigns decide not to reach out to people and ask for their votes, it’s not hard to see why those folks don’t vote or see a role for themselves in our political system.
KTS: Ditto what Minh-Thu said. I’d just add that sometimes the “suppression” is not intentional or malicious. For the Asian American community, outreach can be complex — it’s a diverse set of groups with diverse political leanings, as we noted before. These nuances about history, relationship, language, politics, or even literacy rates can be hard for the national campaigns to fully grasp. So they risk taking more of a one-size-fits-all approach to outreach. This ultimately means their efforts have major blindspots. This means entire groups are left out of the outreach campaigns, so they miss out on voter education, campaign development, polling. All of it. It’s not exactly suppression, it’s more of an omission. In the end, the result is the same. Folks don’t vote.
Unpacking these myths points to a clear trend: For years, Asian Americans have been historically neglected in politics, whether it’s representation within offices or outreach in campaigns, despite the high numbers of potential voters. Asians in America have experienced disenfranchisement since our arrival, fighting off stereotypes as “cheap labor” after centuries of exploitation and indentured servitude, from building railroads in the 1800s to the Panama Canal in 1906. For so long, Asians in American have been treated as bodies for labor while being disenfranchised by systems of governance. It was only in 1943 that Asians were allowed to naturalize, and with that long overdue right to citizenship came the right to vote — but that’s over two decades after (white) women got suffrage.
It’s no wonder that the AAPI community faces these (invisible) barriers to voting, when this history of struggle is neglected. Fortunately, more and more AAPIs are taking an active role in politics, creating organizations, like Asian Americans Against Trump, to educate and inform. In the wake of the “China Virus” and the devastating collapse in our economy, the Asian American community is waking up to the need for change, with 73% of AAPI voters supporting Biden and 70% of young Asian American voters are now registered to vote. Eyes will be on our community come Election Day. Voting, while a step towards systemic change, is neither the first nor the last.
Art credit: Joy Velasco
Last modified: October 20, 2020