Richard Levine / Alamy

Asian Americans lag blacks and Latinos in registering to vote

Language, culture barriers persist in mobilizing fastest-growing segment of US population

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on the Asian American vote and the 2016 elections. Part one looks at how Asian Americans are a swing vote that both Republicans and Democrats have been slow to attract.

Immigration and religion may be incendiary topics, but Christian Bato doesn’t mind playing with a little fire if it stokes the political passions of his fellow Nevadans, particularly among the booming population of Filipino Americans in a state that could play a pivotal role in next year’s presidential election.

Bato, who is of Filipino descent, is a community organizer with iAmerica, a national campaign to encourage immigrant communities to participate in the country’s electoral process.

“Sometimes you have to take a topical issue that’s in the news to light a fire under the AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community,” said Bato, who is based in Las Vegas.

The phrase “anchor baby,” in particular, seems to rile younger generations of Asian Americans, he said. Sometimes it’s a conversation about a potential voter’s conservative or religious values — themes more likely to resonate among first-generation Filipino Americans, who are predominantly Roman Catholic — and the high stakes that may be riding on next year’s election.

“We’re nonpartisan, so we’re not promoting any particular message,” Bato said. “We just want to get them out there.”

While Asian Americans are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, they lag other communities in voter registration.

U.S. Census Bureau

Just 56 percent of eligible Asian American citizens were registered to vote in 2012, according to the latest U.S. Census data available. Among African Americans, 73 percent of eligible voters were registered, while Latinos registered at a rate of 59 percent.

But once registered, Asian Americans  were just as likely to cast ballots as Latinos — 47 percent and 48 percent, respectively — though considerably less than the 64 percent of whites registered to vote and 66 percent of African Americans.

By some accounts, Asian Americans are a sleeping political giant. Their numbers are growing, but the demographic has yet to learn how to flex its muscle at the ballot box.

Nevada is one of the places the demographic could have a big influence, according to Asian American groups pushing to get more AAPIs registered.

The state is expected to play a pivotal role in 2016. It controls just six of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, but Nevada is getting lots of attention from Democrats and Republicans.

Las Vegas hosted the first Democratic presidential debate of this cycle, and most of the GOP’s leading candidates have made repeated forays into the state.

To underscore the state’s importance in energizing the AAPI electorate, Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, a national group that is leading the drive to get more AAPIs registered to vote before the 2016 election, is holding its national convention next year in Las Vegas.

Voter registration among Asian Americans remains a significant hurdle for political engagement, according to the organization’s executive director, Christine Chen.

“When you look at Latinos, African Americans, women’s communities — more organizations are doing the work. They have more registration drives. And they have more money,” she said.

“We haven't seen that. Only in the last few years have some resources come into our communities,” said Chen, who crisscrosses the country to help build a network of grass-roots organizations that fan out into their communities to mobilize AAPIs.

The challenge is to turn new and occasional voters into high-propensity lifetime voters, the kinds of voters whom political campaigns are more likely to target. Doing so, she said, could force politicians to include Asian Americans in discussions about issues of special concern to their communities, including access to higher education, jobs and health care.

But it all starts with persuading AAPIs to register, she said.

Genie Nguyen, a community organizer in Fairfax County, Virginia, knows how difficult the task is to engage new citizens, many of them with limited English skills who are still learning how to participate in American democracy.

Many of the Vietnamese Americans in her community have trouble reading English and need help registering to vote. Some require interpreters on Election Day to cast ballots.

“Sometimes they think it’s too much trouble,” she said.

‘When you look at Latinos, African Americans, women’s communities – more organizations are doing the work. They have more registration drives. And they have more money.’

Christine Chen

Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote

A survey conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in 2012 found that more than a third of Asian American voters had limited English proficiency and more than a fifth preferred voting with the help of an interpreter or materials in their native language.

Some voters said they didn’t have such help on Election Day. In some cases, they were asked to prove their U.S. citizenship.

In addition to language concerns, Nguyen said, barriers include distrust of government and skepticism that their vote will count. “We have to educate them and motivate them ... If people don’t register and if they don’t vote, no one will listen,” she said. “We want to talk about our issues, we want people to listen to our issues, and we want policies that reflect our issues.”

Nationally, there are 6 million registered voters of Asian descent. That number is expected to more than double, to 12.2 million, by 2040, according to a study released in May by UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.

“Not only will Asian Americans be a politically influential voting bloc in select areas in the United States. They have the potential to be the margin of victory in critical swing vote states during the next six presidential election cycles,” said the study’s author, Paul Ong.

In Nevada the booming Las Vegas economy has drawn thousands of new residents to work in casinos, hotels and the construction trade that has built swaths of homes. The state has among the country’s fastest-growing Asian American populations — more than double the national rate, according to Census Bureau estimates.

Asian Americans account for 8.3 percent of the state’s 2.8 million residents. The Las Vegas area alone is home to more than 205,000 Asian Americans, about half of them Filipino — a group that has been far friendlier toward Republicans.

In all, there were about 115,000 AAPIs in Nevada eligible to vote in 2012, according to iAmerica. Voter registration drives helped register more than 71 percent of that population.

Labor unions have been working hard to register their members, many of them of Asian descent who work on the bustling Las Vegas Strip.

During the last presidential election, the Nevada Chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance said it registered more than 3,000 voters during its Every Vote Counts campaign.

On a recent afternoon, Emily Zamora, iAmerica’s Nevada coordinator, registered 18 people to vote during a visit to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

“Even if it’s just one new registration, it’s not a waste of time,” she said. “That’s one more person that we are registering to vote and one more person that has the ability to voice their concerns and voice their opinion come Nov. 8, 2016.”

Her group plans to expand its voter-registration drives at Las Vegas high schools, particularly those that have large numbers of Latino and Asian American students who will be 18 by the time the presidential election rolls around.

“It’s difficult at times. There are a lot of people who feel disillusioned,” she said. “Our job is to talk to those people and find out why they’re disillusioned and let them know that registering to vote is an opportunity to vote for people who think like they do.”

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