Photo by Frydolin
Photo by Frydolin

In Washington’s Asian Pacific Islander American communities, half of us don’t count! That’s one way of putting the disturbing truth that only 50 percent of all eligible APIAs are even registered to vote.

If we’re not registered, we can’t vote in local, state, or national elections. If you didn’t register, you were not able to vote for the first African American president. If you’re not registered, you can’t help decide who is best to make decisions about our children’s education. We can’t decide whether we want to support funding for affordable housing, libraries or public transportation as well as mayors, council members, legislators, judges, and more.

It’s not all our fault. It’s no wonder that 47 percent of the APIA electorate doesn’t identify as a member of either Democratic or Republican parties. There has never been a comprehensive effort by either party to recruit and register voters in APIA communities.

In my family, I can’t remember anyone telling me I had to register to vote; it was automatic like going to school or brushing teeth. There was this community sentiment that, as Japanese Americans, we needed to vote to ensure that we elected people who would not put us in concentration camps again.

I do remember the big celebration when my paternal grandfather became a naturalized citizen. And, the first time he went to vote, my sister and I—both in elementary school—got to go with him. He lifted us up, one at a time. I don’t remember whether I pulled the curtain shut or actually pulled the lever to vote. But, that image is ingrained in my brain. Today, I am a perfect voter—meaning I vote in every election. If all the eligible APIA folks actually registered and voted, we would become a formidable force in electoral politics. And, you better believe we would see officials more often than just during election cycles when they want our donations and our votes.

There are many APIAs in Washington who come from countries and cultures where there is no such tradition of democracy. I’ve been told that the words “vote” and “democracy” do not exist in some Asian languages.

And, then there are barriers, especially to new Americans. First is language. Ballot initiatives are written in such a complex manner that even we English speakers have trouble figuring out the text. Especially when we have to vote “no” if we mean “yes.” King County Elections director, Sherril Huff, has cited the high cost of translation as the reason that Martin Luther King Jr. County will not translate voter pamphlets into more than the federally required Chinese and Vietnamese. Huff is not running for re-election. Here’s a great chance to elect a King County Elections director who is more responsive to language issues.

There’s no question that Washington is not the new Jim Crow South where all kinds of barriers are being put into place in an orchestrated manner.

But, much closer to home, the ACLU and allies had to go to court. Last year, the federal court ruled that Yakima violated the Voting Rights Act by the manner in which they had drawn the city council districts, thus denying equal access for Latinos.

And, while the first district elections for Seattle City Council has an array of diverse candidates, there’s only one district that is “majority minority,” District 2, which covers the Rainier Valley, International District, and Beacon Hill where the vast majority of people of color live.

Today, there’s a flurry of voting rights efforts going on. From exploring non-citizen voter participation to advocacy for ballots and voting materials in additional languages. The legislature continues to wrestle with a voting rights bill, despite failing again this session. But language and systemic barriers and cultural histories cannot account for the astounding and shameful lack of APIA voter registration.

I’ve heard community folks say it doesn’t matter who gets elected. Yet, we all are passionate about the issues that affect our job, health and safety, or family. It’s time to be part of the solution by registering and becoming an informed voter. If we registered just 25 percent more APIAs in Washington, we could change the outcome of local elections. If not for you, do your family and community a favor. Register to vote. If you’re already registered, find a neighbor, friend, or family members and help them get registered; if all of us did that, we would be at 100 percent.

APIA leaders are involved in very exciting national voter education and participation campaigns. APIAVotes, a national voter participation organization, has joined forces with Seattle’s Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Engagement (APACE) to increase voter participation in Washington. And, for the first time, health and human service organizations are able to provide patients and clients with voter registration materials. Ethnic-specific voter participation efforts are learning from the Korean Voters Association and others in decades past. Check with your trusted community service agencies like Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), International Community Health Services (ICHS), and others. Or go directly to:

ACRS and Asian Pacific Islander Coalition (APIC) and its partners are intensifying voter engagement efforts and taking the community’s civic engagement to the next level. ACRS recently hired Monica Ng as their Civic Engagement Manager to assist ACRS and APIC partners in voter engagement efforts. Stay tuned for training opportunities on voter registration and voter education efforts such as candidate forums and ballot parties.

We cannot remain at 50 percent. Too much is at stake. Our communities matter and our voice will grow stronger with every new APIA voter!

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