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. This is the narrative of voting in the United States. Voting is seen as a special opportunity for all United States citizens, but is this truly the reality? Are all eligible and potential voters truly empowered to use their voting power?
Asians and Pacific Islanders obtained the right to vote in 1965 and 50 years later our community still has not reached the full potential of its political power. In 2014, only half of all eligible and registered Asian and Pacific Islanders registered to vote in Washington State. Out of all the people who were registered to vote, less than half of them 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. Despite being the fastest growing community of color, comprising 5 percent of the U.S. population, we had one of the largest voter disparity rates of any group.
Some folks may say that our community isn’t motivated to vote, that we don’t know the importance of voting, or that we don’t care about politics. These are used as explanations to describe why Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders turnout to vote at low rates or don’t register to vote.
Yet other organizers and I know that the AAPI community understands the importance of civic engagement. Our communities are the ones who feel the impact of regressive politics and are the first ones impacted by negative policies. Our communities tell us that they do care about what happens to their bodies and their rights. More often than not, we find that our communities are the ones facing significant barriers to voting structures. These barriers create the disparities that we see in AAPI voter participation and registration.
The National Voting Rights Act of 1965 Section 203, tried to alleviate language barriers on historically disenfranchised communities. For any community with over 10,000 individuals or 5% of the total voting age citizens in a single political subdivision, election offices must provide ballots in-languages. However, this doesn’t do enough for reducing language barriers. In Washington State, in-language ballots are available for the Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese speaking community, but we know that the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities collectively speak over 40 different languages and every County in Washington does not have full access to all of those language options.
For all other individuals who don’t speak or read English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, 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.
Even before voting happens, registering Asians and Pacific Islanders to vote can take lengthy conversations 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 lived experiences in home countries. Understandably many community members need trusted messengers to share why our voting voice is important.
Moreover, this only applies to individuals who emigrated from countries 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 APIAVote in 2012, 69 percent of Asian American voters and 74 percent of Pacific Islanders were never contacted or communicated with during the election. Without sufficient information and confidence to vote, how can our community feel fully supporting in the electoral system?
On top of all of the structural challenges to voting, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders rarely see themselves as 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 Americans and Pacific Islanders don’t feel important in elections, as found in the national study from APIAVote 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 of 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 it is time that our voices are amplified and heard by all.