“What is the greatest right you have as an American citizen?” read the final question on Trang Le’s U.S. citizenship test. She vacillated between freedom of speech or religion, but then the answer suddenly hit her: “The right to vote.”
“I have always felt that I had enjoyed all the same privileges as other Americans who were citizens but the right to vote never even crossed my mind as something of value,” said the 28-year old at an event co-hosted by the Asian Student Commission at the University of Washington to encourage Asian American students to register to vote.
And this is a sentiment held by many Asian Americans. According to statistics provided by the Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment (APACE), 50 percent of eligible Asian Americans were registered to vote in the 2008 general election. To put this into perspective, 85 percent of Caucasians and 74.4 percent of the overall population had registered to vote.
With the 2010 Census showing that Asian Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S., they are poised to determine the outcome in several battleground states. Experts say that the 7.5 percent of Washingtonians who are Asian American have the capacity to determine the close gubernatorial race in this state.
This is if they decide to vote.
Xuan-Trang Tran-Thien, who works with the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) and APACE to mobilize APIA voters in the Seattle area, said there are three main components preventing Asian American’s from getting out the vote. She said that it’s lack of access, and not apathy, that gets in the way. This ranges from lacking English-language skills to the inability to understand the candidates’ stances or positions. Another hurdle to mobilization is Washington State’s vote-by-mail policy and confusion over how/when to register for voting.
“People don’t understand how diverse APIA’s are in terms of culture and language,” said Tran-Thien. This raises the question: Do Asian Americans represent a single “voting bloc” like pundits frequently describe them to be?
According to a study conducted by University of Illinois Professor Wendy K. Tam exploring this elusive monolithic voting bloc,” it does in fact exist. As the “younger, more wealthy generations who live in the suburbs” begin to depart from the older generations, they begin to become more similar to the younger generations of other Asian ethnicities. Tam’s findings are the result of studies done on APIA communities in California, particularly the San Francisco area.
“What now seems like disparate groups lacking the ability to form a coalition may well present a united front when the younger generations come into positions of political leadership,” writes Tam.
“The patterns of growth imply that this day of unification is close.”
As the immigrant group with the highest income level, according to a 2012 Pew Research Study, Asian Americans have plenty of economic clout. Despite being lower in numbers, this group has rivaled whites for the highest rate of donation to political campaigns in the last election. Donating 13 percent last cycle and 11 this year, the amount ranks significantly higher than African American donation amounts, at 8 percent.
The fact remains that neither presidential candidate has targeted the Asian American voting bloc specifically. Considering APIA’s are over four times more likely to be undecided than the average voter, this untapped segment of the population remains perilously overlooked.
“Politicians overlook our community, absolutely, but they overlook every community. We have to hold them responsible,” said Tran-Thien.
In 2008, Barack Obama won Virginia and other battleground states by margins as low as 6.3 percent. In Virginia, the Asian American population is 7 percent, enough to determine the outcome of that state’s electoral vote.
Nevertheless, today, ten years after becoming a U.S. citizen, Le encourages everyone, particularly, minorities to get involved politically.
“I have come to realize that our democratic system will never truly be democratic unless every voice is heard, and the truth of the matter is, not every voice is being heard or more importantly, being spoken.”
Note: APACE has worked in conjunction with ICHS, Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), and Seattle Central Community College’s Multicultural Services office in its voting campaigns.