(Editors Note: This report is part of a project on voting rights produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. It has been edited for length and includes additional reporting on Orange County by Voice of OC. Click here to read the original version of this article and the complete project, titled “Voting Wars — Rights/Power/Privilege.”)
Beth Vang grew up with a conflicted view of civic life. Vang, a 21-year-old college student, lives near St. Paul, Minnesota, in one of the largest Hmong communities in the U.S.
In traditional Hmong culture, Vang said only the elite discuss politics and government. Young people conform to their parent’s ideologies. And personal politics take a backseat to community harmony.
But Vang is American. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. the year before she was born.
In school, she learned the importance of political education, the value of individualism and the significance of issues affecting the public sphere.
She considers herself caught between the old world and the new.
“In America, it’s OK to do certain things that it’s not OK to do in the Hmong heritage,” Vang said. “That’s something that we need to overcome if we want to make it in the U.S. and if we want to adapt to how the U.S. political world works.”
Vang said she personally has overcome some of those cultural barriers, and she does plan to vote in the upcoming presidential election: “Luckily, I grew up with exposure to American culture and therefore knew that I should pay attention to politics and elections.”
St. Paul’s Hmong, who largely immigrated to the U.S. as refugees after civil war in Southeast Asia, are among the nearly 20 million Asian-Americans living in the U.S. For the upcoming presidential election, Asian-American voters are projected to make up 4 percent of eligible voters. This percentage may seem small, but the population has grown rapidly since 2012.
Besides being the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S., Asian-Americans have the highest income and are the best educated – both factors that have traditionally produced high voter turnout.
However, as a voting bloc, Asian-Americans don’t. In fact, they have the lowest voter participation of any demographic group.
Many Asian-Americans, mostly first-generation immigrants, don’t speak English well or might not be familiar with the democratic process. But experts and advocates said even those more familiar with American culture say they feel neglected by political candidates who don’t reach out or understand their issues. Some say they’ve faced discrimination when they’ve gone to vote.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of the political research group AAPI Data, said parties are less likely to reach out to Asian-Americans than any other race. “They’re your quintessential swing voter because their party identification tends to not be as strong,” he said. “And right now, there’s a big missed opportunity for Republicans as well as Democrats to reach that population.”
Vietnamese-Americans are in many respects the exception the trend. Because the vast majority are either refugees of the Vietnam War, or children of refugees, they are active politically and have historically been reliably Republican due the party’s consistent hard-line stance against Communism.
Orange County’s Little Saigon is home to the largest Vietnamese population in the world outside Vietnam and has been a reliable electorate for the local GOP, not only with votes but also with candidates for local and state offices.
Beyond Little Saigon, the county is also home to large Chinese, Filipino and Korean populations and a growing number of Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Pakistani Americans, according to a recent report by Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Other than Vietnamese-Americans, Asian subgroups in Orange County and across the nation tend to vote for Democrats. And even younger Vietnamese-Americans are increasingly voting for Democrats as evidenced by the rise of Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen, who is currently running for a U.S. House seat.
On a statewide basis, California has one of the largest Asian-American populations in the country, with 14.7 percent of residents identifying as Asian-American, according to 2015 figures from the U.S. Census.
Asian Americans as a whole are more likely to lean Democrat than Republican, and are also less likely than the general electorate to identify with a political party, with 35 percent of Asian American voters in California having no party affiliation.
Language Creates Barriers
One in three Asian-Americans speaks limited English, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. From Bengali to Tagalog, their native tongues and dialects are numerous and varied. This can thwart prospective voters from reading or filling out a ballot.
“We’re talking about many, many, many different languages, many different cultures, many different experiences with voting and political processes,” said Sundrop Carter, director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. “Even people who maybe do their day-to-day business in English don’t feel completely comfortable doing something as important as voting in a second language.”
The national Voting Rights Act has two clauses designed to protect minority language voters. The first, Section 203, requires that voting divisions translate their ballots when their population has more than 5 percent or 10,000 limited-English speakers who share the same native tongue. Currently, only 22 counties, including Orange County, or cities in the U.S. meet that requirement for any Asian language.
Another minority protection in the voting law, Section 208, allows voters to bring translators into a voting booth with them. But this isn’t always allowed. Jerry Vattamala, director of the Democracy Program at Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, said it’s not uncommon for his office to hear about poll workers refusing to allow translators into the booths. The U.S. Department of Justice has sued 12 counties for violating Section 208 since 1998.
Mary Anne Foo is the executive director of the Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA), a local nonprofit that conducts get-out-the-vote drives, phone banking and poll monitoring during elections.
OCAPICA and other advocacy groups had once considered suing the county over language access and voter rights, Foo said. But since the current Registrar of Voters, Neal Kelley, was appointed in 2004, Foo believes the situation has “drastically improved.”
“The Registrar is doing pretty good because they have an outreach team that speaks multiple languages,” said Foo. “They look at polling sites where there are a high concentration of voters born in another country and have been pretty good about having at least one [bilingual] poll worker.”
Still, although the Registrar is required to accommodate Vietnamese-, Korean- and Mandarin-speaking voters, in small ethnic communities –- such as Cambodians, Hmong and Pacific Islanders – it can be difficult to find bilingual individuals to work at the polls, Foo said.
Vang, the student from St. Paul, said language issues go beyond translation. Directly translating words such as “president” and “democracy” into Hmong can seem impolite and harsh.
“Words that have a relation to politics sound very, very powerful. … It sounds like something you should never talk about,” she said. “You can’t just say those specific words in Hmong and not get away (without) an argument or something like that.”
About half of the citizens who speak Hmong in St. Paul speak English “less than very well,” according to U.S. Census data.
Although a translator may help voters read their ballot at the polls, the service doesn’t necessarily help them prepare.
Foo says voters in Asian communities often don’t have access to independent, non-partisan information about their candidates and their policy positions, through news media or nonprofits dedicated to civic engagement. As a result, voters often receive campaign mailers translated in their language and tend to believe what is written.
“We’ll find, when we do phone banking, that people will say, ‘who should I vote for?’” Foo said. “If you’re not internet savvy, if the ethnic media is not covering it, or if there’s a political bent to it, you could be getting misinformation or no information.”
‘You Don’t Vote in China’
When David Oh, a Korean-American, won his seat on the Philadelphia City Council in 2011, he became the first Asian-American elected to local office in Philadelphia. In those five years, Asian-American voter registration in the city has roughly doubled from 5,000 to nearly 10,000.
He and his associates have gone door to door in the city’s Asian neighborhoods to register voters.
“Many of them really never knew that you could vote for your elected officials,” Oh said of Asians in Philadelphia. “Many of them are from China. You don’t vote in China. It’s kind of a new thing, and they sign up, and they’re quite happy about it.”
He said it also helps that he and his associates speak to residents in their heritage languages, which makes people feel more at ease.
Chancee Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles, uses a similar tactic when calling voters to remind them of upcoming elections. She said they’re more likely to respond to someone speaking their native tongue.
“When someone with some kind of modicum of authority or legitimacy or credibility asks Thais to do something, they automatically feel obligated,” she said.
But American democracy can be overwhelming, even frightening for immigrants.
The Fresno Center for New Americans’ Lue Yang, a Hmong who came to the United States in 1976, said speaking up is valued here – an uncomfortable concept for some.
“Back in the country of Laos under the communist control, the more you say, the more bad (things would) come back and harm you,” he said.
The varied and complex systems at the polls can even confound those who did not flee authoritarianism.
“The first time I voted in Pennsylvania was very different than where I had voted before and as a fluent, very well-educated person, (I) walked in and was like, ‘Whoa, which buttons?’ There were all these flashing lights. I voted in New York before, which has a very arcane lever system,” said Carter, of Pennsylvania’s immigration coalition.
“It can be confusing. And imagine if this is your first time ever voting, you’re not super confident with English, and no one has ever told you what a voting machine looks like. It can be a hugely intimidating process.”
In San Francisco, the Chinatown Community Development Center hosts monthly town halls to increase voter participation.
It addresses a variety of topics, from health department regulations to voter education. Staff members also can help register them to vote, said the organization’s executive director, Norman Fong.
Fong, 65, is one of the neighborhood’s biggest advocates. His mother was a San Francisco native. His father came to the U.S. in 1919 but was detained for years just offshore at Angel Island, ensnared by the Chinese Exclusion Act.
In 1990, Fong began working for the community center, housed in a modest, 105-year-old walk-up a few blocks from the city’s famed Pier 39. At that time, many residents, old-timers included, didn’t vote, he said. His parents didn’t care much for politics, either.
He credits grassroots outreach for drumming up engagement.
According to the city’s elections department, Chinatown voter turnout has increased at roughly the same rate as voter participation citywide over the past five presidential elections.
“We’ve gotten to that stage,” Fong said. “The residents of Chinatown know that their vote makes a difference.”
Voter Suppression in the 21st Century
In 2014, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund received more than 340 complaints from Asian-Americans reporting problems voting. More than 1 in 5 of these grievances involved being asked to prove their U.S. citizenship in states that don’t require ID to vote. Generally, only a few people in those states would have to provide proof of citizenship.
Vattamala, a defense fund’s director, said another common problem among Asian-American voters is mistakes with their names, causing them to not show up correctly on voter rolls. He said Asian-American names may be unusual to people entering the voter roll data.
“(The people entering the voter registration data may) see three names and don’t know which one is the first or last name. … There might be a space added or deleted or a couple letters screwed up when the data entry is taking place,” he said. “And then it’s up to the poll worker to say if the names substantially match up to each other.”
Vattamala also said Asian-American voters may have western nicknames on their licenses but not on the voter rolls. If poll workers determine the names do not match, they must give the voters provisional ballots. He said some poll workers do not know this, so they turn the voters away.
“(It) happens a lot to Asian-Americans, unfortunately,” he said.
Other Asian-Americans may be targeted based on how they look or where they were born.
Twenty-year-old Thanh Mai said she tried to register three times in Louisiana and was denied.
Mai’s family moved to the U.S. from Vietnam when she was about a year old. She became a citizen when she was in her teens.
“I assumed since I was a U.S. citizen, I could vote and didn’t realize there could ever be a time or place where I couldn’t,” Mai said. “I’ve been living in the U.S. basically my whole life.”
But at the time, Louisiana had a 142-year-old statute requiring naturalized citizens to prove their U.S. citizenship to register to vote. Voters born in the U.S. were not required to do so.
Mai tried to register during her freshman year at Loyola University New Orleans in 2014. Once she discovered she wasn’t on the voter roll during the 2015 governor’s election, she registered again at her school and online early in 2016.
She received a letter from Jefferson Parish officials saying she couldn’t vote because she wasn’t born in the U.S. Mai was instructed to go to her polling location with the proper paperwork to prove she is a citizen, she said.
Mai only had 10 days to do so – and she said she didn’t see the time constraint. Eventually, she ended up having to register again.
“I felt so awful about the whole thing,” she said.
Mai said she wrote her parish a letter and received a note back saying she was not a U.S. citizen.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Fair Elections Legal Network filed a lawsuit over the Louisiana law on May 4, with Mai and two other naturalized citizens as plaintiffs. Collectively, the three citizens tried to register to vote eight times. The lawsuit detailed how the state law violated the 14th Amendment by illegally targeting naturalized citizens in the registration process.
There are more than 72,000 naturalized citizens living in Louisiana. The state law was not documented on the state’s voter registration form or the secretary of state’s website, the center alleged.
Less than a month after the center filed the suit, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed legislation repealing the law, and the advocacy groups withdrew the lawsuit.
“I’m just really relieved because I worked so much, I registered so many times, I’ve been disappointed so many times,” Mai said. “Now that I can register to vote, I appreciate my right to vote much more now than before. Even though it was a horrible experience, the fact that I can now vote and partook in this lawsuit makes me really want to get more people to vote.”
While such overt voter suppression remains a problem in many corners of the country, there are other, more nuanced, reasons why voting among Asian-Americans remains relatively low.
Andy Toy, a spokesman for Philadelphia’s chapter of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, said Asian Americans don’t have enough advocates to shepherd them into a political dynamic dominated by a party machines and a few well-established political players.
It’s a “machine town,” where the white machine and black machine are well-established political players, he said. There is no Asian machine.
One reason why this demographic hasn’t seen big bumps in voter turnout may be because so many Asian-Americans are recent arrivals. Seventy-four percent of Asian-American adults were born outside the U.S., according to a study by the Pew Research Center. And more than half of the respondents in the Pew survey said they see themselves as different from “typical Americans.”
Vattamala, the defense fund’s director, said his organization started exit polling to articulate the issues important to Asian-Americans.
“For the first time, people are starting to ask what issues are important and how they’re voting,” he said. “Things have gotten slightly better. Some media outlets are asking now.”
But data show it’s not necessarily easy to nail down how Asian-Americans “think” because so much depends on their individual background, their individual culture.
In 2012, the defense fund polled about 9,000 Asian-American voters in 14 states. Although 65 percent strongly supported immigration reform, responses varied within ethnicity groups. For example, 78 percent of Bangladeshi respondents supported reform while only 49 percent of Vietnamese respondents did.
David Ryu, a Los Angeles city councilman, said in the past politicians didn’t pay much attention to Asian-Americans voters during campaigns, but that’s starting to change. Ryu is the first Korean-American elected to the council.
“After my election, many people are looking towards Asian-Americans as being that swing vote,” he said. “And as we saw in the last presidential election, where Asian-Americans overwhelmingly supported Obama and the Democrats.”
Obama received about 70 percent of Asian-American votes in 2012.
There is hope for the future, Ryu said. Politicians are getting better at removing Asian-American voting barriers.
“It’s not a rocket science,” he said. “It’s just doing it … and simply going out and asking.”
Voice of OC reporter Thy Vo contributed to this article. Contact her at[email protected] or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.