Asian American Political Participation in the 2008 Presidential Election

Article excerpt


Asian Americans are one of the fastest-growing minority groups in the nation, estimated to number almost twelve million people. More and more are becoming U.S. citizens, and they are increasingly registering to vote. While 66 percent of Asian Americans are citizens, most (53 percent) acquired citizenship through naturalization. (1) Asian American citizens of voting age numbered 3.9 million in 1996 and rose from 4.7 million in 2000 to 6.7 million in 2004. Asian American voter turnout has also steadily increased, from 1.7 million in 1996 to nearly 3 million in 2004 (U.S. Congress 2005).

Asian American voters have been overlooked by the mainstream media and by candidates for political office. Exit polls typically report on election returns and racial breakdowns in the vote for Whites, African Americans, Latinos, and "other." When they have reported on the Asian American vote, data has been skewed. In the 1996 presidential election, for example, Voter News Service (VNS) surveyed only 170 Asian Americans nationwide out of 16,000 voters polled, and the VNS conducted its poll only in English. It reported that Asian Americans favored Republican candidate Bob Dole over Bill Clinton by 48 percent to 43 percent. But multilingual community exit polls in New York and California found that Asian American voters supported Clinton by wide margins--up to 75 percent in immigrant neighborhoods. (2) When the media neglects the Asian American vote, candidates usually follow suit.

Moreover, while Asian Americans aim to participate in the electoral franchise, they encounter obstacles due to their unfamiliarity with the American electoral process. Many come from Asian countries with very different political systems or that may even lack a tradition of voting. They do not understand basic political procedures, such as the need to register to vote by a certain date or to enroll in a political party to vote in a primary, or how to operate voting machines (U.S. Congress 1992; U.S. Senate 1992). Almost half (43 percent) of all Asian Americans over the age of eighteen are limited English-proficient, and 81 percent speak a language other than English in their homes (U.S. Census Bureau n.d., Table PCT62D). Special efforts are needed to help Asian American voters fully participate in elections.

Since 1988, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) has conducted nonpartisan multilingual exit polls of Asian American voters and monitored elections to document instances of anti-Asian voter disenfranchisement (Magpantay 2004b). (3) AALDEF's multilingual exit polls reveal vital information about Asian American voting patterns that are regularly overlooked in mainstream voter surveys. The polls also provide a snapshot of Asian American voter preferences regarding candidates, political parties, language needs, and other issues of vital importance to their communities.

In 2008, AALDEF mobilized 1,500 volunteer attorneys, law students, graduate and undergraduate students, and community activists to cover 113 poll sites in thirty-nine cities in eleven states and Washington, D.C. (4) The AALDEF conducted its polls in thirteen languages: English, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Vietnamese, Khmer, Japanese, and Arabic. (5) Overall, a total of 16,665 Asian American voters were surveyed in states with large Asian American populations: New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, Nevada, Louisiana, Texas, and Washington, D.C. It was the largest survey of its kind (AALDEF forthcoming).

Exit Poll Findings and Profile of Respondents

The five largest Asian ethnic groupings surveyed were Chinese (32 percent); South Asian (including Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indo-Caribbean (6)--31 percent); Korean (14 percent); Southeast Asian (including Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai--9 percent); and Filipino (5 percent). …