All citizens have the right and the opportunity to vote. Each individual’s vote is a foundation of our democracy and all of our voices hold equal political power. There is a shared narrative that voting is a special opportunity for all U.S. citizens—but are all eligible and potential voters truly empowered to use this voting power?
Asians and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing community of color nationally and comprise 5% of United States residents. Washington State itself is home to one of the largest Asian and Pacific Islander communities nationally. The 2010 census estimates that over 10% of Washington State residents identify as Asians and Pacific Islanders. In King County, approximately 15% of residents are Asians and Pacific Islanders.
Asians and Pacific Islanders only obtained the right to vote in 1965 and 50 years later our community still has not reached the full potential of our political power. In 2014, only half all eligible and registered Asian and Pacific Islanders registered to vote. Out of the people that were registered to vote, less than half of those voters actually voted in the 2014 General Election. To put some numbers to these statistics, around 90,000 Asian and Pacific Islander voters in Washington, could have voted and did not. We had one of the largest voter disparity rates out of any community of color.
Some folks may say that our community isn’t motivated to vote, we don’t know the importance of voting, or that we don’t care about politics—these explanations lead to low voter registration and turnout rates. Yet, time and time again other organizers and I have heard from community members that they believe that their vote does matter. Commonly, we see that there are significant barriers that make access to registering to vote and voting very difficult.
The National Voting Rights Act of 1965 Section 203, created structures that ensured historically disenfranchised communities had more access to voting. For any community that made up over 10,000 individuals or over 5% of the total voting age citizens in a single political subdivision, the elections office indicates that a jurisdiction must have ballots in-languages. But this is not enough. In Washington we provide ballots in-language for the Chinese and Vietnamese speaking community (and in 2016 King County will also include Korean and Spanish into this group), but we know that the Asian and Pacific Islander communities collectively speak over 40 different languages. For all other individuals who don’t speak or read English, Chinese, and/or Vietnamese, trying to navigate the defaulted English ballot becomes a barrier to voting. Additionally, while the voter registration form comes in 14 different languages (most of them predominantly Asian and Pacific Islander languages) the ballot itself still does not come in all 14 of those languages. A voter may register in Khmer, but they will not receive a Khmer ballot—only the English ballot. Understanding voting materials is essential to filling out any of these materials.
Adding the lack of language accessibility, registering Asians and Pacific Islanders to vote may take more conversation and an understanding of cultural context compared to other voters. For some individuals, voting and politics are perceived as extremely risky. Government is not always viewed as trustworthy and reliable. Due to traumatic and lived experiences in home countries, many need trusted messengers to share why our voting voice is important. Moreover, this only applies to individuals who emigrated from counties where voting was an option. For home-countries where the option to vote doesn’t exist, there is a significantly more challenging conversation to have about why one vote can make a difference. Without this understanding, a potential voter may not feel safe enough to provide information that would register them to vote.
Beyond registering to vote, the act of voting can be challenging for community members. Community organizers consistently hear that folks don’t want to make the wrong decision when they vote and may opt out of voting so that they can avoid making a “wrong choice.” More commonly, community members report that they don’t know who the candidates or the issues are on their ballot. In a national study conducted by APIAVotes in 2014, about 46% of Asians and Pacific Islanders were never contacted, or communicated with, during the election. Without sufficient information and confidence to vote, the Asian and Pacific Islander electorate of 2014 did not turn out to vote in as great of numbers as possible.
These are just a few of the barriers that our community faces in voting. At multiple points along the voting continuum we see barriers that make voting access difficult. On top of all of the structural challenges that our community faces, Asians and Pacific Islanders rarely see themselves as a recognized participants empowered in the political conversation. We lack the representatives and the messengers needed for us to collectively voice our concerns and to vote. It’s no wonder that over half of Asian and Pacific Islanders don’t feel important in elections, as found in the national study from APIAvotes in 2014.
When a community doesn’t feel important, doesn’t have adequate resources, and doesn’t feel empowered to speak up, is it really surprising that its political power is not fully expressed? Voting is a fundamental pillar to our democracy, but structural barriers hinder the voting power of the Asian and Pacific Islander community. Our community has a huge potential to be a strong voting voice and in order to reach that full potential we need to feel empowered. We need to know that our community should speak for ourselves with our votes so that we are making decisions for ourselves, and informing elected officials about our opinion. Without a strong political voice, the needs of our community may be lost in a sea of other voices. This election, and in future elections, we need to come together as a community to strengthen our voice. We need to support each other and empower each other to use our votes. Our voice is important and we deserve to be heard.