Just Where Is the Asian American Woman’s Vote?

Their participation could make a difference, but their eligibility and rights have had a challenging start

Asian Americans vote on Election Day at a Denny’s Restaurant in Temple City, Los Angeles County, on November 6, 2012 in California. Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

InIn many ways, 32-year-old Korean American Hannah Kim is an active member of New York’s Queens community. A law school graduate and private school teacher, she volunteers her time interpreting for Koreans at immigration court and teaches Bible study every weekend. Yet, how did she demonstrate her civic duty at the polls during the 2016 presidential election? “I literally just sat there and flipped a coin,” Kim said.

Her disengagement with politics is not a rarity in the Asian American community. The Asian Americans and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community often demonstrates the lowest voter turnouts in the country. Startling 2012 numbers from the U.S. Census show that only 48.7% of eligible Asian American women voted in the presidential election (compared to 53.9% of Latinas and 82.1% of African American women). Where is the Asian American woman’s vote?

As a result of discriminatory laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Asians were unable to naturalize and ineligible to vote in the United States until 1952. During this time, the first Asian Americans were elected to office; they in turn opened doors for immigration reform nationwide. Between 1960 and 2014, there was a 2,597% increase in the number of Asian immigrants to the United States. Today, there are more than 20 million Asians in the nation, 85% of them are from Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese origin groups. However, those numbers do not result in more voters per se. Pei-te Lien, a political science professor at UC Santa Barbara, believes the idea that Asian Americans have the absolute lowest rates of voting is only true if one assumes all U.S. adults have the same eligibility to vote. “The main reason Asians do not vote in the United States has to do with their lack of citizenship and, to a lesser extent, nonregistration,” she said.

Nonetheless, researchers predict that by 2036, Asian Americans will make up 10% of eligible voters in the United States. These numbers mean politicians are finally beginning to pay attention to Asians as the fastest-growing racial minority in the United States. The Asian American vote is especially important because the bloc does not have a clear party affiliation. Although Asian Americans have become increasingly Democrat in the past decade, 47% of the community consider themselves politically independent.

As a result of discriminatory laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Asians were unable to naturalize and ineligible to vote in the United States until 1952. During this time, the first Asian Americans were elected to office; they in turn opened doors for immigration reform nationwide.

As Hasan Minhaj points out in volume 5, episode 5 of his show Patriot Act, Asians have the power to flip legislatures. He says despite Virginia voting Republican for every major political office in 2000, the state is now entirely blue, thanks to a 125% increase in Asian residents over the past two decades. “The capital of the Confederacy is now the capital of hot pot and banh mi,” he jokes.

WWhat is not talked about in the discussion of the Asian American vote is the power that Asian American women have to make a difference. Political science professors Christian Dyogi Phillips and Taeku Lee point out the “scant attention to gender in studies of Asian American political participation” in a 2018 paper. Lee says there is a general lack of discussion about intersectionality in politics, and this is especially true when it comes to talking about Asian voters. “For instance, to the question ‘does race matter?’ the tendency is to default to thinking about Black voters and Latinx voters, and not so much AAPI voters. Or to the question ‘does gender matter?’ the tendency is to default to thinking about White women and not women of color,” he said.

Although women overall have voted at higher rates than men since the 1980s, Asian American men and women vote at roughly similar rates. Raising the political voice of AAPI women is valuable especially in states like Florida, where they can tilt states from one side to the other. In the 2012 presidential election, 97,402 Asian American women voters in Florida meant they made up the difference in the vote margin of 74,309. “A highly important state in every presidential election, Florida’s margins highlight the importance and influence of Asian American women voters,” writes American Women, an affiliated organization of EMILY’s List.

According to the Fall 2016 National Asian American Survey, Asian American women were mostly Clinton-supporting Democrats, with overwhelming support for issues like the Affordable Care Act, college assistance, emission limits, and equality for Blacks. But looking at these previous poll results is only one aspect of understanding the Asian American woman as a voter. Examining the Asian American women voter is a layered process: “Like other American women, Asian American women face gendered discrimination. As women of color, they face an additional layer of discrimination by being non-White. Foreign-born women face a third layer of discrimination of nativism by being nonnative English users or otherwise considered unassimilable or alien. For immigrant women in more conservative ethnic groups, their basic rights as equal individuals in family and community are challenged,” Lien said.

With the diversity of Asian Americans in the United States, what are some of the issues that can bring a majority of the group together? Jennifer Baik, communications and policy associate at APIAVote, a nonpartisan organization that helps mobilize the AAPI community in electoral and civic participation, says Asian American women “really care about a lot of the issues affecting our country today.” She lists gun safety, racial violence, health care/caregiving, and the economy as key issues for AAPI in the upcoming 2020 elections. She says those issues are also reflected in previous research conducted by APIAVote.

AAccording to the Center for American Progress, five ways to increase Asian American voter turnout are collecting more comprehensive data on the community, eliminating language barriers, increasing political campaign outreach to Asian Americans, ending discrimination during voter rolls, and removing barriers to voter registration.

Political parties need to do more to invite Asian American women to the table.

“One important aspect is that Asian Americans, more so than any other group, identify language access as a critical barrier to their electoral engagement,” Lee said. His research indicates that Asian American women who are foreign-born citizens are not as inclined to participate politically — 35% of Asian American adults overall have limited English proficiency, and that number increases to 48% when looking at first-generation immigration women. While Section 203(c) of the Voting Rights Act mandates translated materials at the polls, this Pacific Standard article points out that “in practice this policy is rarely implemented.”

Political parties also need to do more to invite Asian American women to the table. In a joint publication from the Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative and Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, Esther Cho says Asian Americans as a whole are consistently less likely than Whites or Blacks to be contacted by a political campaign or organization and, baseline rates of contact from campaigns and other organizations involved in elections are even lower for Asian American women than men. “In conversations about minority and women representation, Asian Americans and Asian American women in particular must not be overlooked,” she concludes.

In addition to greater in-language citizenship drives, voter education, and campaign outreach by parties and organizations, Lien says more qualified Asian Pacific American candidates, especially more progressive women candidates, can also help motivate turnout. Both Andrew Yang and Kamala Harris have dropped out of the race, but the 2020 Democratic primary has made the AAPI community visible in more ways than one — giving a platform to the first Asian Americans to run for the Democratic seat for president and inviting more Asian Americans into the conversation. Political columnist David Byler writes that changes to the 2020 Democratic primary calendar give Asian Americans more influence, and AAPI could end up giving a substantial boast to their preferred candidates in states like Nevada and California.

Outside academic circles, there is not yet a discussion specific to the Asian American women vote. However, Lee reminds us that as long as you have a voice, you can contribute to the course of the conversation. “Identities don’t actually shape our views in such a cabined way, and the ‘default’ identities of race and gender are becoming increasingly complicated by the reality of the growing diversity of the American electorate. So, really, it is on us, as researchers, journalists, candidates, and organizers, to bake this diversity and complexity into our analysis and into our action,” he said. As for Hannah Kim from Queens? She promises to take the vote a bit more seriously in November.

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