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As an older, white man approached me, I smiled, clipboard in hand, ready to ask if he was registered to vote. He returned my smile with a cold, unimpressed stare.

“You see them, over there?” He asked, pointing at a group of laughing, middle-aged Asians in the park.

“Those motherf**kers don’t vote.”

I stood blankly as the man casually strolled away, shocked. But if you look at aggregate data, that man wasn’t wrong.

Although Asian, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs) are the fastest growing demographic group in the United States, increasing 72 percent from 2000 to 2015, and hold diverse, informed opinions on a range of political issues, our record when it comes to voting is dismal. 

While non-Hispanic white and African American populations vote at rates of about 65 percent and 59 percent, respectively, only 49 percent Asian Americans vote. This 10 to 15  percent difference signals to political entities not only that Asian political opinions and concerns do not matter, but also that we are a monolithic group to be taken for granted or used as political props. It creates a vicious cycle of indifference and apparent acquiescence which continues to fundamentally harm Asian communities nationwide.

Why, then, do Asian communities with diverse political opinions and genuine concerns vote at such low rates?

For some, the issue of non-voting remains systemic. According to the 2010 American Community Survey, 44 percent of Asians are Limited-English Proficient (LEP), meaning they have difficulty with English and are unable to navigate voter registration and voting forms on their own. Although Section 203 (c) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) requires districts with sizeable populations of foreign language speakers to provide voting materials in those languages, it does not comprehensively protect the rights of all LEP citizens. Indeed, according to the most recent data, only 263 districts out of America’s 2,919 are required by law to provide materials, a slim  percentage of which provide them in any Asian languages. For residents of the remaining more than 2656 districts, challenges of registering and voting is nearly impossible without help from children or bilingual community members, who can legally help with voting as well under the lesser-known Section 208 of the VRA.

Linguistic barriers to voting contribute to the perpetuation of broader Asian stereotypes which harm both our communities and our political voice. A perceived lack of voting engagement reinforces the stereotype that Asians are a hardworking “model minority” with no desire to rock the boat or be a political force. This stereotype, the subversive result of white social structures historically pitting minority groups against each other, leads politicians to ignore issues facing Asian communities and perceive them as politically valueless. Indeed, only 33 percent of Asian Americans reported being contacted by political parties in the 2016 presidential election cycle, 15 percent lower than white and African-American counterparts. This persistent lack of interest in engaging with the Asian American community, derived specifically from stereotypes projecting Asians as uninformed, monolithic, and apolitical, only further discourages us from voting in a political system that fails to represent our concerns and values.

However, beyond the “model minority myth” and its harmful stereotypes exists a more pervasive impression of Asian Americans as foreigners who do not belong. From the question “where are you really from?” to presumptions that Asians are incapable of speaking English, perceptions of Asian Americans as “forever foreigners” empower outrageous political manipulation and the abuse of Asian communities as a destructive wedge against other minorities, or even each other. It emboldens racist inclinations reflected throughout history, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to segments like this one, which, in addition to being infuriatingly racist on all counts, portrays Asians as incapable foreigners, undeserving of consideration, with no grasp of politics or life in America. How can such disinterested, foreign simpletons stand up for themselves in media or politics, much less vote? Their answer, it seems, is simply that we cannot.

Credit: Camille Rapay

In tandem, subversive, racist perceptions of Asian Americans signal to us and the nation that Asian political voices don’t matter; that we don’t belong or belong only to reinforce systems that oppress our fellow minorities. These dangerous beliefs are pervasive, profoundly misinformed and further render struggling Asian communities throughout the nation invisible.

However, against systemic and racist forces, and in addition to being the fastest growing demographic in the United States, the population of Asian American voters saw historic growth in 2016, adding over 1.1 million new voters, while a record number of Asian Americans ran for elected office in 2018. Although 49 percent of Asian Americans may vote, this number hides that, within the population of those registered to vote, over 80 percent of Asian Americans vote, more comparable to our fellow Americans. So, while the PA registration deadline has passed, other states have same-day registration and you and your family can vote early or absentee (absentee voting has deadlines). In addition, according to AAPI Data, Asian communities could have significant impacts in at least 27 districts and 11 states, while Asian American voter enthusiasm has skyrocketed; now, more than ever, Asian Americans need to make this impact and enthusiasm felt. One solution is to repair the Voting Rights Act, stripped following Shelby v. Holder, and improve legal, enforceable requirements for language access in districts nationwide. Such measures would not only empower LEP citizens to vote in their native languages, but also distribute voter registration information in more languages and fight newly developed systematic barriers to voting like statewide voter purges.

However, addressing systemic barriers to voting cannot counteract generations of racist stereotyping and subversive bias alone. At a time when our fellow Asians and Asian Americans suffer under burdens of mental health, overshadowed poverty, gentrification, increasing wealth gaps, and persistent racism, as well as fears of deportation, racially-motivated attacks, and family separation, we cannot afford to wait in hopes that law will correct the damage that has been done. We need to make our voices heard now. To that end, it is not enough to ensure that only you are voting; to be heard and respected, we must ensure that our families vote as well. It may be hard, especially when the generation gap widens divides in political opinions and older generations can be blatantly prejudiced. Approach sensitive issues carefully, know that you have friends and family who will support you, and remember that the more you educate your family or expose them to different perspectives, the more opportunities you have to make an impact. Inform them about issues that you care about, work with them to learn about local elections, talk to them about the importance exercising their civil right to vote has for future generations.

Ask them, however you can, to show the nation on Nov. 6 that, yes.

These motherf**kers do vote.

BENJAMIN OH is a College senior from Burtonsville, Md. studying philosophy, politics, and economics. He is an External Co-Chair of Penn Sangam. His email address is benoh@sas.upenn.edu.

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