Why AAPIs Must Vote This November


In one month, the votes will be tallied to decide the next president of the United States. Some Americans have already voted. Many others will cast their ballot on Election Day on November 8th.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing population in the United States. Yet, the AAPI community has among the lowest voter turnout across any racial group, as well as among the lowest voter registration rates. In the 2012 general election, the Census estimated that only 47.3% of registered Asian voters actually cast a ballot, while Pew reports a similar trend of low Asian voter turnout for midterm elections.

It is crucial for our community to reverse this trend, particularly as 2016’s Election Day draws near. It is incumbent upon AAPIs to cast our ballots.

Voter turnout estimates reported by the US Census. (Photo Credit: US Census)
Voter turnout estimates reported by the US Census. (Photo Credit: US Census)

Like most marginalized Americans, the right to vote was hard-won for AAPIs.

For centuries, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were denied by law the right to participate in most forms of American citizenship. We were legally classified as non-Whites (or even as “Mongoloids“) and later as “aliens ineligible for citizenship”, and were prevented from naturalizing as American citizens, from testifying in court on our own behalf, from owning property, and from voting.

This latter disenfranchisement was a sticking point for an American populace increasingly swept up by fears of America’s inevitable un-Whitening. Non-White people, including Asian Americans, had to be denied voting rights to protect White male political power. In the late 1800’s, lobbyists like Denis Kearney decried any integration of any Chinese into American society or political process. Wrote James D. Phelan in 1907, who had earlier completed two terms as San Francisco’s mayor and who would go on to be elected a US Senator in 1913:

Japanese now occupy valleys in California by lease or purchase of land to the exclusion not only of whites but Chinese, and if this silent invasion is permitted by the Federal Government, they would at the rate at which they are coming, a thousand a month, soon convert the fairest State in the Union into a Japanese colony. If they were naturalized they would outvote us. 

— quoted in “Yellow Peril” by John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats

Poster for Phelan's campaign. (Photo Credit: Yellow Peril by John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats)
Poster for Phelan’s campaign. (Photo Credit: Yellow Peril by John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats)

The consequences to AAPI of this broad inaccess to the protections of American citizenship, including the right to vote, were myriad; without the ability to be heard at the ballot box, AAPI were victimized by American lawmakers and roving bands of violent vigilantes alike. We were routinely targeted, violated, exploited, and assaulted. Many of us were killed.

Nonetheless, as a community, we fought back. Tirelessly, we worked alongside other marginalized people for our right to vote. In 1898, Wong Kim Ark’s landmark US Supreme Court case established that he and all people born on U.S. soil — regardless of race — were citizens of the country. Even so, because of exclusionary laws that had already prevented entry to Asian women or marriage between Asian men and non-Asian women, birthright citizens were a minority of Asians in America. It would take another half a century for the vast majority of Asian Americans to win the right to naturalize and therefore to access voting rights, and another decade afterwards for the Civil Rights Movement to win passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that created legal protections to reduce voter discrimination of non-White voters, including Asian American voters. In all, it took nearly a century of work to secure voting rights for most AAPI.

I say “most” because voting rights are still denied to many AAPIs. Despite the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — which was itself significantly rolled back by the Supreme Court in 2013 — many AAPI still face obstacles when it comes to registering to vote and casting a ballot. Language support for non-native English speakers, including a large number of AAPI voters, are guaranteed by law and yet still largely unavailable at the polls on Election Day. Surreptitious voter purges routinely occur that disproportionately impact voters of colour, including the removal of 120,000 registered voters from voter lists in Brooklyn earlier this year — thousands of those purged voters were likely Asian American. And, the most egregious example: American Samoans still to this day are denied birthright citizenship due to racist laws that remain inexplicably on the books, and so American Samoans born on a US territory still may not cast a vote in American elections.

There is so much work that remains to be done to secure voting rights for all AAPI. We must commit ourselves to doing this work while remembering how critical this right has been for our community, historically and today.

AAPI have long been stereotyped as quiet, meek, submissive and apolitical; in reality, we are anything but. We are loud, proud, and highly political. We have a lot of political opinions, which many of us express daily in blogs, vlogs, essays, tweets, and Facebook status updates.

Every few years, we also have the chance to be heard not just over the internet but at the polls. There, we can vote not just to help decide the presidency but also to decide our representatives in down-ticket races and in crucial local ballot measures. Our history of victimization by federal, state, and city laws remind us that all of these elections matter. Out of respect for our past and our future, this November we must exercise our hard-won right to vote.

We are Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and we must vote this year because we are not silent, and we will not be made to be silent. Our voices matter, and so our votes must, too.

The deadline to register to vote falls for most states within the coming week. Find out the deadline for your state here. Through APIAVote — a non-partisan AAPI voter registration and turnout non-profit — you can find out if you are registered to vote here, and register to vote here.

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#IAmAsianAmerican is a national campaign to try and register thousands of AAPI to vote this year, and is doing so in part by hosting four free concerts in four cities next week. Learn more at their website.

VoterVox is a newly-launched crowd-sourced project to connect volunteer translators with non-native English speaking voter who needs language assistance. Learn more here.

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