By Sophia Stephens
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
With the upcoming elections, Asian Americans and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters have the potential to determine the outcome of several races and major decisions throughout the country.
But relative to other racial groups, AAPIs have some of the lowest voter registration rates, with only 56 percent of people who are eligible to register having done so as of 2016, according to Joseph Lachman, the civic engagement program manager for Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS).
But he also said, “The good news is that 89 percent of those who are registered turned in their ballots, so we are hopeful about AAPI turnout in the upcoming midterm elections in 2018.”
“One important point of consideration here is that most of the people who are identified as ‘Asian American’ are not yet U.S. citizens, and therefore are not eligible to vote,” said Connie C. So, the vice president of OCA (formerly known as the Organization of Chinese Americans) and principal lecturer at the University of Washington. “Another factor is that we are the youngest population among the racial groups, and we know that young people in general don’t vote very often. We also have a high ESL population, and so unless you have things translated, it becomes even more difficult for those who have English as a second language to vote.”
So, who immigrated to the United States from Kowloon, Hong Kong, continued to detail that other AAPI voters, especially immigrants, may carry over government distrust from their home countries. They could also be deterred by the United States’ emphasis on homeland security, or may be more interested in their home country than the United States, even if they are long-term residents. So also emphasized that, as “the most populous jobs for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are in the service sector — you have people working in restaurants, dry cleaners, 7-11s, among others — these people are working many, many hours and do not have the time or energy to go out to vote.”
The AAPI voting bloc has a variety of ethnic groups, languages, and cultures, which makes unification a challenge, but not impossible — especially when it comes to the immigrant vote.
“The way we vote in Washington state can be quite unusual for immigrants who are newly eligible to vote,” said Joaquin Uy, communications and outreach manager at the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA). “In many countries around the world, elections continue to be a rather low-tech process. Eligible voters must travel to polling stations, wait in line, present identification, and then fill out a hard copy of their ballots, maybe even get fingerprinted with ‘electoral ink.’ This is why in Washington state, some new immigrant voters may find our ‘vote by mail’ process difficult to understand. Our office has heard stories of community members confusing their ballot with junk mail and then mistakenly throwing it away!”
Lachman said that many AAPIs who entered this country as immigrants and refugees were escaping violence and turmoil in their home countries.
“For many of them, engaging in advocacy of any kind, including voting or even just raising their voice back home, could have put them at risk of violent retaliation or other kinds of persecution.”
Lachman continued, “Many in our communities grew up in systems that suppressed civic participation, which causes hesitancy to engage that can last for generations. Even for those who have long wanted to engage, no one has ever reached out to them in their native languages about registering to vote or turning in their ballots. Lower registration rates and voter turnout perpetuate a cycle where candidates for office and elected officials neglect our communities’ needs and concerns, and in turn, AAPI community members feel they are unable to influence policies and government through elections.”
For immigrants who are acclimating to their new surroundings, OIRA offers a multitude of programs, including services such as the New Citizenship Campaign, the New Citizen Program, and the Ready to Work program, which partners with community-based organizations such as ACRS, Literacy Source, Neighborhood House, and more to aid Seattle-based immigrants.
“OIRA sees immigrant integration along a spectrum,” said Uy. “An undocumented immigrant resides on one end (least integrated). A newly naturalized citizen regularly voting and volunteering for their community is on the other end (most integrated). We differentiate integration from assimilation. With assimilation, immigrants are encouraged or forced to completely disown or stop practicing their culture of origin. With integration, immigrants are encouraged to maintain the practices of their culture of origin, while moving towards increased civic engagement here in the U.S. OIRA has programs and policies that celebrates cultures, welcomes immigrants, and helps move them along the spectrum to more integration.”
With the actions of the current administration, the backlog of pending applications for naturalization “has skyrocketed to 729,400, with processing rates reaching as high as 20 months after someone has mailed in their application and fee,” said Uy. “Any of these factors can be a significant obstacle for green card holders and legal permanent residents who want to vote.”
Nonetheless, Lachman said we have good reason to be optimistic. In the last presidential election in 2016, we saw huge increases among registered AAPI voters across virtually all demographics.
“For example, turnout among registered Cambodian American voters went from 62 percent to 83 percent,” said Lachman. “People in our communities engage when given the opportunities and tools they need to feel both safe and empowered to participate in our democracy.”
Lachman concluded, “At ACRS, we believe that civic engagement goes beyond simply registering to vote and turning in your ballot. Rather, it is our communities working to build civic power throughout the year using culturally competent and linguistically accessible engagement strategies that empower our community members to find their voices and make them heard.”
Sophia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.