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The Forgotten Vote: Crunching the Numbers

Updated: Jul 10, 2019

If you're reading this article right now, whether it be on an iPhone, iPad, desktop computer, laptop, or any other type of tablet (God forbid it to be an Android), then I congratulate you. Congratulations. You have chosen to engage in politics in some fashion, a choice different from over 33% of Americans in 2018.

With the diverse range of beliefs and policies that each potential candidate brings into an election, the act of voting is one of the most critical actions a citizen can take toward advocating from the change that they want in their country. A significant 70% of Americans believe that high voter turnout is critical toward accurate and fair elections. However, this essential right is not frequently exercised. This issue is even more prominent in the Asian American Community, one of the fastest-growing racial minorities in the US, with projections of being more than 10% of the voting population by year 2044.

In recent history, Asian American voter turnout and registration have been egregiously low. Pew Research found that in the 2016 election, about 61.4% of eligible voters cast ballots. Out of these ballots, Asian Americans consisted of only 3.6% of these ballots. This alone is not a cause for concern, as Asian Americans only consist of 5.8% of the total US population, in comparison to 18.3% of the population for Hispanics and 13.4% of African Americans, meaning a low share of total votes is not a determinant of lack of political engagement. A low share of total votes is natural, given that Asian Americans consist of a smaller share of total population than other races.

The problem lies, rather, in actual voter turnout, and not just in a percentage of total votes. According to an analysis by Pew Research, voter turnout of eligible Asian voters was only 47%. This means that out of all Asian Americans above the age of 18, only 47% voted. This is lower than other minority groups. In comparison, voter turnout for non-Hispanic whites was 64%, Black voter turnout was 67%, and Hispanic voter turnout was 48%. Pew Research also found that only 49.3% of eligible Asian American voters voted. (This is distinct from voter turnout, which is calculated based on votes/number of people above voting age). To make the voter turnout statistics slightly more clear, we’ll go ahead and do some calculations. According to an estimation by the Census Bureau, in 2016, 245.5 million Americans were eligible to vote. With the 61.4% statistic, we get about 150 million votes, close to the tallied number of votes, 136.8 million. Factoring in the fact that 3.6% of the total share of votes was by Asian Americans, the Asian American vote comes to around 4.9248 million votes. The population of the US in 2016 was 323.4 million. According to the Census Bureau, 18.6% of the population is below 18 years old. This means there are about 60.1524 million minors in the US. Among these minors, in 2010, about 4.6% were of Asian ethnicity. This means that there are about 2.767 million Asian American children, leading to about 14-15 million Asian American US residents above the age of 18. Though these are rough estimates, and despite not being fully similar to the results by Pew Institute, the extremely low vote to eligible voter ratio is alarming, and shows the trend of the Asian American political disconnect. If that isn't enough, in the 2008 election, the voter turnout rate for Asian Americans was only 32.1%.

The trend is even worse in other examples: In California, during the 2014 general election, only 18.4% of eligible Asian Americans voted. Despite this minuscule number of votes, the Asian American share of votes had actually increased between 2012 to 2014. One final example: in the 2014 Midterm Elections, the nationwide Asian American turnout rate was only 27%, another abysmal rate. Additionally, not only do Asian Americans face some of the lowest rates of voter turnout, they also face immensely low rates of voter registration. In 2012, only 56% of adult Asian Americans were registered to vote, in comparison to 72% among Whites, 73% among Blacks, and 59% among Hispanics. This is just another indication of the lack of political engagement.

What has caused low voter turnout and registration?

There are a few key reasons as to why Asian Americans have lower political engagement and lower voter turnout in comparison to other racial groups. Two of these reasons are language barriers and a lack of political outreach.

First, language barriers are an issue plaguing the majority of potential voters. 75% of Asian American adults are foreign-born, and 35% of adult Asian Americans face significant language barriers due to their limited proficiency in English. This problem would not be too severe, however, if translated ballots were properly handled. However, in a study by the Department of Justice, access to translators and translated ballots were poorly handled, with voters facing language barriers being unable to properly vote. In an AALDEF’s exit survey from 2016, as many as 60% of voters desire some language assistance while voting. Unfortunately, a mere 27 jurisdictions are covered in just one Asian language, and in other jurisdictions, language assistance is largely unavailable. In a 2012 study, 45% of precincts had missing translated materials. An additional 23% lacked an Asian bi-langual poll worker. There is also little incentive to work as a poll worker: For the 2016 primaries, Asian-language translators only $105 max for a 13-hour day. Even when there is a poll worker, language barriers still prevent potential voters from properly understanding the platforms of political candidates, meaning they are often poorly informed as to who they should vote for. These language barriers prevent individuals from fully understanding electoral information and platforms.

Second, Asian Americans are rarely contacted by political campaigns and politicians. In a 2012 report, only 31% of Asian Americans reported that they had been contacted by a political campaign, far lower than the national average of 53%. Among specific ethnic groups, only 29% of Chinese people and Cambodian people, as well as only 20% of Hmong people were contacted. When political campaigns and politicians don't reach out to Asian Americans, many potential voters feel as if campaigns don't care about their vote, since they did not bother to reach out to them. Furthermore, many people initially become invested in political engagement through contact by campaigns, and with a low contact rate, many Asian Americans either feel uncared for or are never given a reason to invest in political engagement.

Why It's Important

Every single resident in a country as largely diverse as the United States deserves to have their opinion and views heard. Contrary to popular belief, Asian American voters hold distinct, bold, varying political views, ranging from climate change to gun control, abortion, and more. They hold distinct views that are kept under the surface. A survey by the APIA found that Asian Americans hold various views, and provided specific statistics on various political topics, including: support for Government provided services (44%-24%), support for strict gun control (7-1 ratio), support for affirmative action (66%), and support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (64%-22%). Asian Americans furthermore more broadly support the Democratic Party (58% favorability in comparison to 28% unfavorability, and disapprove of the Republican Party (34% favorability in comparison to 52% unfavorability). In a study by the ANES, Asian Americans are second after African Americans in their support for abortion rights. According to a survey by the NAAS conducted based on nonpartisan AAPI Data, Asian Americans oppose the ban on Muslim Immigration, reject the movement toward the legalization of Marijuana, and are split on their stance of Syrian refugees. Regardless of your political view on certain issues, it is key that everyone eligible person's voice is heard. In order to gain a more accurate, and proper representation of what leaders the American people genuinely want and demand, it is essential that everyone exercises their right to vote. Low voter turnout in recent years has led many to speculate about the “illegitimacy” of the American democratic system. It is essential to remind ourselves that each vote is the voice of a person. When the voices of over half of a particular minority group are never heard, drastic change must be taken.

What can be done?

It's not all negative news in the political climate. In recent polling from 2018, the APALA, AAJC, and APIA reported that Asian American voter enthusiasm had increased to 48%, a large upward spike from the 28% enthusiasm rate in 2014. There are many ways that Asian American political engagement can be enhanced. There are 3 critical and easily implementable steps that can be taken toward increasing registration and turnout. As a first move, political campaigns should attempt to increase Asian American outreach. A study by Temple University found that voter contact before an election increased voter turnout. In California, the practice of phone banking increased Asian American turnout by 10%. Reaching out to voters increases voter turnout and registration by making the recipient feel more welcome and important, as well as initiating political curiosity for potential future voters. Second, language barriers against voting must be eliminated. Without unnecessary language barriers, potential voters will be able to better comprehend the electoral process, and better understand the unique platforms that political candidates have. Jurisdictions must be required to fully comply with Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act by providing properly trained multilingual poll workers as well as properly translated ballots. Another way to improve access to ballots is to decrease the minimum population threshold requirement for the translation of ballots and other materials into various languages. Many states have already taken initiative: California has utilized state-specific election laws that guarantee language assistance, and Illinois provided Korean ballots for the 2016 election, even when it was not required. In 2014, New York expanded language assistance toward non-English speakers. Furthermore, political campaigns should provide translations of their platform and stances of issues, as a means to help eligible voters with limited English ability. Through the expansion of these language assistance programs, language barriers that had previously prevented eligible voters from taking part in the electoral process will diminish in their restrictions and limitations. Finally, in order to increase engagement, US states can remove their restrictive registration barriers. States should begin initiatives to enact new policies like automatic voter registration and expanded early voting as a means to increase voter registration and engagement. Currently, policies like the "exact match" protocol are failing: Asian Americans face the lowest percentage of voter registration, at only 56%. Asian Americans are 6 times more likely to have their voter registration delayed or rejected than whites, due to slight misspelling from transliterated names. Georgia recently provided a clear example of this: In 2016, thousands of Asian American applicants were rejected due to slight spelling differences in their identification forms. A delay or rejection in an application can have a diverse range of effects. Rejection can not only prevent applicants from registering in time to vote, but also make applicants both feel unwelcome and frustrated at the registration process, potentially leading them away from political engagement in the future.


The social and ethnic makeup of the United States is dramatically changing. Minority groups are growing in population at rapid rates, and it is estimated that by 2043, there will be no clear racial majority. With these changing times, politicians must look toward new methods to increase overall voter turnout, political engagement, and voter registration. Changes must be made so that every American is able to utilize their most essential right: the right to vote.


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