Midterms 2018: How Asian American voters are ‘coming of age’ this election cycle - especially in ‘red’ states

Growing number of Asian American voters could change political landscape in some states

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York/ Atlanta, Georgia
Monday 05 November 2018 21:43 GMT
A directional sign in various languages is placed to point voters to a polling station in New York.
A directional sign in various languages is placed to point voters to a polling station in New York. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Just hours away from polls opening in the midterms, it is clear Asian-American voters are having a “coming of age” election moment across the US and particularly reliably “red” Republican states like Texas, Nevada, and Georgia.

Overall, the Asian-American population in the US has grew by 72 per cent - from 11m to 20m - between 2000 and 2015. In 2018, they count as approximately four per cent of voters and more in terms of campaign contributions.

According to the Pew Research Centre it is the fastest growing racial and ethnic group in the country, and both Republicans and Democrats are now paying attention to getting thoe voters to the polls.

Maggie Tsai, communications manager for Nevada-based voter education and outreach group One APIA, told The Independent this new political power is due to a few reasons, with population growth key.

The Asian-American population in the state is approximately 10 per cent, a figure which represents rapid and massive growth and with that, influence.

As Duy Nguyen, the Director of One APIA, said to The Independent “the Asian Pacific Islander American vote may determine the race [The Senate race in Nevada]. For too long, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans have marginalised and invisible in the political discourse”.

While there are those who have worked on voter outreach and education for close to two decades, Asian-Americans were largely not seen as an influential bloc on the national stage.

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Despite local political groups existence for decades where there were strongholds of Asian populations like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, it was not until the late 2000s when groups like South Asians for Obama made an appearance in a larger context.

Ms Tsai also said increased engagement by Asian-American voters - and campaigns as well as national political parties - could also be attributed to a large number of young people who are the generation born or at least raised mostly in the US.

There are also “issues particularly salient” to the community at large.

Suman Raghunathan, Executive Director of the advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (Saalt), agrees.

Her group covers mostly voter education rather than direct engagement but she told The Independent she notices both the Republican and Democrat parties “devoting resources and attention to sort of reach out to, and motivate, South Asian and Asian-American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities”.

“I think our communities are realising these external dynamics, policies, and forces are deeply impacting us, particularly on immigration," she said.

Outreach and voter education take different forms in the Asian-American community depending on the organisation carrying it out but Ms Tsai pointed out In Nevada, the goal of her group and others is to “reflect the diversity of our population”.

The community is comprised of Americans hailing from 20 different countries, speaking dozens of different languages, ranging from the uber-wealthy to those living on public assistance - approximately 12 per cent of those in poverty in the US are Asian-Americans.

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An important factor to take into account as voter engagement becomes more visible is the “model minority myth,” according to Ms Tsai.

This stereotype has plagued the Asian American community as a whole, leading to mental health issues, experts have argued.

It also contributes to the idea of “merit-based immigration” Donald Trump and Republicans have touted, implying only these types of educated and financially successful immigrants have a place in America rather than allowing for a more diverse population.

The president has been pushing this idea of late particularly in relation to the migrant caravan travelling through Mexico from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Many are fleeing rampant gang violence and poverty, seeking asylum and work in the US, but may potentially enter the country illegally.

Ms Tsai said it is also destructive because it can often “separate” Asian Americans from other minority groups, though “we have many of the same [political] concerns of healthcare, public education, and good jobs”.

Ms Tsai said One APIA has been working with other groups reaching out to voters of colour and it has been “super helpful”.

“If we get all the people of color to vote, we can change the state...building power together

[because] we have so much issue areas that overlap,” Ms Tsai said.

Groups like hers across the US have been banding together with groups like the NAACP, MiJente in Georgia, and others on issues of immigration reform in particular, which disproportionately affect Asian American and Latin American populations.

Ms Tsai also said the “model minority” issue plays into “masking” other issues within the Asian American community as well.

Southeast Asian immigrants or those from poorer or more marginalised communities in the region may have a very different immigration history than Chinese, Indian, and Filipino Americans who make up the majority of the community.

For instance, refugees from Myanmar or further back in US history, those fleeing the Vietnam War, may have different experiences than for instance, people who came to the US to attend graduate school from India or China.

She said it is finally time for the younger generation of Asian-Americans to bring to light this diversity of experiences by “controlling the narrative” rather than letting the majority do that.

That translates in voter engagement terms as literature outlining ballot initiatives and various candidates’ positions in five different languages in Nevada - English, Tagalog, Mandarin, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Texas Democratic House candidate Sri Preston Kulkarni, a former US Foreign Service member, conducts phone bank operations asking for votes in 13 different languages including Hindi, Mandarin, Tamil, Gujarati, Urdu, Vietnamese, Korean, Malayalam, Telegu, Bengali, and others.

His district is the second most diverse in the US and operations have been tailored to reach new voters who were never thought of before by candidates or parties.

In New York City, Democratic candidate for the US House Alexandria Ocasio Cortez reflects changing demographics in her district extending into the borough of Queens by issuing campaign literature in Bengali.

Mobilising Asian-American voters also means canvassing from door-to-door in different languages.

Ms Tsai said when she speaks to older Chinese Americans, it helps to do “the cultural work” and share her own immigration story with them in a shared tongue.

Increased engagement in the 2018 midterms has also meant overcoming an immigrant’s perception of politics from their native country as well.

“For many South Asian-American communities the familiarity with leveraging party politics is new, we come from communities and a culture where politics is a dirty business, where it's usually associated with corruption,” Ms Raghunathan pointed out.

Their agency as US voters may not be fully realised until they are reached out to from someone in their own community who can explain the power they have in terms to which they can relate.

“We have been building that muscle, and frankly demanding more accountability from members and candidates in a far more sophisticated way and I think we've gotten much better at it but it is still a growing level of understanding,” Ms Raghunathan said.

It all also speaks to a shift in thinking that political parties cannot take Asian-American voters for granted.

As more US House members like Washington state’s Pramila Jayapal, California’s Ro Khanna, Senators Mazie Hirono and Tammy Duckworth, or White House staffers from the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations win races and enter debates on national issues, the conversations about Asian-American voters will likely have to change as well.

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Most Asian-Americans now skew Democratic, particularly after Mr Obama’s 2008 election. According to data compiled by AAPI Data, a service at the University of California-Riverside, voting skewed Republican until then but by 2016 came about an overwhelming 72 per cent of the group voted for Hillary Clinton, while 27 per cent went for Mr Trump

However, having Asian-Americans in office is no guarantee issues important to the majority of the community are addressed, which is why some voter advocacy and education groups are taking a non-partisan, diverse approach to reach voters in their specific communities.

Ms Raghunathan argued: “what is really critical to developing a more sophisticated level of understanding in our communities about politics and policies is to really make sure that we are not letting any one party rest on its laurels”.

A candidate forum at the Ismaili Jamatkhana, or place of worship for Shia Ismaili Muslims, in Norcross, Georgia, featured a debate between eight Democrats and their Republican opponents.

Farida Nurani, who volunteers there and helped organise the event, told The Independent “in today’s trying times, it is all the more important for all of us to be able to come together at such places that provide opportunities for dialogue, for inclusive conversations and for understanding diverse perspectives.”

“Having a diverse population is an opportunity to be embraced. Different people, different viewpoints, different perspectives can inform our outlook,” she said.

Ms Nurani noted none of the candidates on either side of the political aisle turned the invitation down either, another sign of a recognition of the most diverse county in the state and the growing Asian-American population there.

Ms Raghunathan also said Saalt has remained non-partisan since the organisation is a registered charity group in the US and requires it.

But, it has not hindered the group’s efforts to educate voters, Ms Raghunathan noted it gave them “far more leeway to really double-down on where the candidates are on the issues”.

Saalt has issued a comprehensive voter guide outlining where candidates in key US House races stand on issues important to South Asian-Americans.

“We've never done that before…[but] we always feel that our communities are very sophisticated and we believe it's really important for voters to look at any manner of potential candidates for both parties to be able to transcend politics and policies based upon partisan affiliation and base it on really where they fall on the issues,” she explained.

This will be a trend going forward according to Mr Nguyen. "This cycle, our organisation is speaking in one voice, across almost 40 different languages, and we are making ourselves heard – and that will translate to real political power come Tuesday and beyond. We’ll be here, after the election, to ensure turnout for next year’s local races and for 2020. Continued engagement is the key to continued turnout.”

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