A Roadblock to the Polls

With a rapidly growing population of eligible voters and comparatively low turnout, the Asian American ballot has long been considered potentially powerful but relatively elusive. Of course, the recent election results have ushered in a sense of optimism as each demographic saw a dramatic surge in the number of votes cast --- turnout among Asian American voters, in particular, surpassed 2016 totals in nearly every battleground state, according to TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier --- but the gap between the political participation of AAPIs and that of the rest of America has yet to be closed. Research has offered a number of explanations for this phenomenon, and crucially, these factors primarily link back to a lack of accommodations for Asian American voters. Marred by disproportionately sparse outreach from politicians and ever-present language barriers, it is unfortunately no surprise that the AAPI community has consistently been unable to show up to the polls at the same scale as other voters.


The Center for American Progress finds that limited English proficiency is most prevalent in the Asian American population at a rate of 35%. Furthermore, although Asian Americans are the fastest growing group of eligible voters in the United States, they still make up the smallest share of the country’s electorate, according to the Pew Research Center. Evidently, these facts are duly noted by political outreach teams across the country --- the Pew Research Center reports that while 87% of White eligible voters, 82% of Black voters, and 75% of Hispanic voters said that they were contacted by a candidate’s campaign in the month before the 2020 election, only 74% of English-speaking Asian voters said the same. The evidence shows Asian-Americans receiving the least amount of outreach, a gap that most certainly would have been even larger had the survey also included Asian voters not proficient in English. These campaigns’ neglect of the AAPI population perpetuates a negative feedback loop: the small population, low voter turnout, and language barriers originally repelled organizers from investing in outreach towards a seemingly unimportant group, but without the outreach providing information regarding campaign platforms, turnout among voters with limited English proficiency remains low, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy of politicians overlooking AAPI voting power. However, the 2021 Georgia Senate runoffs indicate that this does not have to be the case. A remarkable rise in outreach to the Asian American community was accompanied by record-breaking voter turnout, as the Indian American Impact Fund corroborates that after African American voters, Asian American voters had the highest turnout in early votes among all non-white groups.

In addition to a general lack of outreach, AAPI voters must often brave more obstacles once they arrive at the polls. Of course, certain provisions have been implemented for voters not proficient in English; for instance, Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act states that information related to the electoral process must be provided in the language of the applicable minority group in addition to English. However, Asian Americans Advancing Justice finds that problems at the polls were still numerous, including low visibility of translated materials and a lack of signs indicating language assistance. Additionally, the polls often lack bilingual poll workers or fail to properly identify them. The troubles extend to other methods of voting as well, as the already convoluted process of voting by mail is exacerbated by factors such as having to come up with a new signature in a foreign alphabet. A study from Asian Americans Advancing Justice found that Asian Americans who vote by mail face a higher than average ballot rejection rate, with the most common reason for rejection being a non-matching signature. The impacts of these issues are significant, as APIA Vote reports that turnout for Asian American voters with limited English proficiency was nine percentage points lower than that of Asian American voters with a firm grasp of the language in 2012.


Even past the technical roadblocks, the societal burdens placed on the shoulders of Asian Americans contribute to the lack of attention to AAPI voters. The model minority myth, which portrays Asian Americans as submissively hardworking, and the perpetual foreigner stereotype, which prevents Asian Americans from being considered truly American, both support the false narrative that Asian Americans are apathetic towards and unaffected by politics in the United States. Time and time again, however, these perceptions are proved to be erroneous as voter turnout and political participation in the Asian American community increases. Voting is a crucial process in amplifying AAPI voices and issues, and an inalienable right that ought to be accessible to all citizens. Thus, it is imperative that the efforts to include Asian Americans in the political sphere and help overcome the language barriers continue with even more vigor than what is being seen currently.


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