Comparing the Voting Participation of Chinese to Other Asian Americans in Recent U.S. Elections

Article excerpt

Contrary to a public image of political docility and complacency, Chinese Americans have a long history of participation in American politics. (1) In addition to formal participation in elections, they have participated through indirect means such as lobbying, litigation, petitioning, protesting, boycotting, civil disobedience, contacting public officials and the media, and contributing to political campaigns (e.g., Kwong 1979, 1987; McKee 1986; Tsai 1986; Chan 1991; Lai 1992; Yu 1992; McClain 1994; Lin 1998; Zhang 1998; Y. Chen 2000). The rallying points for such political activism were rampant legal, political, economic, and social discrimination on the domestic front as well as concerns for the people and welfare of the overseas homeland. However, prior to the repeal of discriminatory immigration and naturalization laws in 1943, only the U.S.-born generation. (2) the majority of whom were under the voting age, and a very small number of citizens naturalized primarily before the 1882 Exclusion Act, were eli gible to vote.

In the post--World War 11 era, amidst the Korean War and anti-Communist hysteria, the political participation of the Chinese progressives was suppressed by the U.S. government, which increased surveillance and harassment of those who were viewed as supporters of the People's Republic of China. They were targeted by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for immigration fraud; some were stripped of their citizenship status and threatened with deportation (Lai 1999). Even decades into the post-1965 era, despite monumental reforms in the nation's immigration and voting rights policies, the community's prospect of full franchise has been impeded by citizenship and voting registration requirements and by fraudulent electoral practices. Chinese Americans' apparent lack of direct participation in U.S. elections has projected an image of cultural docility and political apathy or complacency (e.g., Sowell 1983, 1994; Jo 1984; Jo and Mast 1993: 429-32). Moreover, mainstream attention to questionable campaign c ontributions made by a number of foreign-born Chinese Americans in the 1996 presidential election has cast further doubts on the ethnic group's commitment to American democratic values and its ability to abide by her rules (Wang 1998). This paper, as part of a larger project exploring the multiplicity of the Asian American political experience, seeks to decipher and debunk the community's image of political apathy and irrationality by reviewing the structural barriers to Chinese Americans participating in the electoral processes and by incorporating such structural concerns into systematic analyses of the extent and sources of mass voting participation by Chinese and other Asian Americans in the contemporary setting.

How many and who among Chinese Americans register and vote? Does ethnicity matter after structural barriers to registration (limited to citizens) and to voting (limited to the registered), in addition to other possible correlates of political participation, are controlled? And how do the correlates of Chinese American voting behavior compare to those of other major Asian American groups? These are the main research questions addressed in this research, which relies on individual-level data from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey (CPS) Voter Supplement files, 1994-98. Although the nonpolitical nature of the dataset restricts the scope of analysis to a limited set of variables, recent changes in the collection of racial and ethnic information provide an unprecedented opportunity to analyze the voting behavior of the traditionally undersampled and neglected minority groups.


An important reason for the lack of voting participation by Chinese Americans in the post-1965 era is institutional barriers. As members of an immigrant-majority community that has expanded at an astronomical rate over the past three decades, individuals of Asian descent may be hindered in casting a ballot in an American election by as fundamental a factor as failure to meet the eligibility requirements or lack of voter education in many ethnic enclaves. …