Asian-American voters need to turn out

During the 2012 presidential election cycle, much was written about the dramatic increase of Asian-American population and the high percentage of Asian-American/Pacific Islanders (AAPI) who voted for President Barack Obama.

Multilingual exit polling showed that approximately 2.5 million AAPIs voted in the 2012 presidential election. The increase in the number of potential voters in this group is promising. A closer scrutiny of the numbers, however, shows a disturbing trend of lower voter participation.

While Georgia’s AAPI voter rolls increased approximately 230 percent from 2004 to 2012, the actual turnout percentage has decreased. In Georgia, only 54.7 percent of Asian-Americans registered to vote voted in the 2012 presidential election.

In Gwinnett, where AAPIs comprise roughly 12 percent of the population — the highest percentage in the state — the turnout was even lower, at 51 percent. Despite having the highest percentage of those with college degrees among all groups, Asian-Americans had the lowest turnout percentage of all racial/ethnic groups.

AAPI statewide turnout percentage actually declined significantly during the last three presidential election cycles – from 65.7 percent in 2004 to 58 percent in 2008 and 54.7 percent in 2012. These percentages would shrink even more, if we were to include in the denominator the number of Asian-Americans who were eligible but not registered..

So, what might be causing lower turnout and perceived apathy? Based on my observations, some general themes emerge.

First, many first-generation AAPIs indicated they were unable to make it the polls on Election Day because they own and operate small businesses. Although several alternatives to in-person voting on Election Day exist, many of these voters simply were not familiar with the availability of early and absentee voting.

Second, the structure of government in the U.S. is complex. Many find it difficult to fully comprehend the functions of each political office for which they are voting. Many also find it intimidating to vote because they are not fluent in English. Ballots and instructions are in English.

Third, the AAPI population is diverse. Attitudes regarding civic involvement vary in light of their past experiences with their birth country. Some simply believe they cannot have a relationship with their elected officials, that their votes would not matter, or that they cannot make a difference in government.

Lastly, when AAPI parents do not vote, their children are less likely to be involved civically.

How do we reverse the trend? At the very least, it requires combined efforts by government officials, candidates for office, and community leaders.

In 2012, more than 65 percent of AAPI voters polled said no one, including the political parties, contacted them about the election. Certainly, more organized and targeted Asian-American voter mobilization and education efforts are needed. All parties should make outreach efforts to make sure these voters are informed about the issues and the availability of alternatives to voting on Election Day.

Moreover, election officials and policymakers should consider making ballots available in different languages above and beyond any legal mandates.

The AAPI community and especially Asian-American voters themselves, must make greater efforts to get educated and involved in the U.S. political process. The right to vote is a sacred individual right that can only be exercised by the individual. It should be exercised to maintain our republican form of government as accountable to its citizens.

B.J. Pak is a Republican state representative from Gwinnett County and the only Asian-American elected official in the General Assembly.

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B.J. Pak is a Republican state representative from Gwinnett County and the only Asian-American elected official in the General Assembly.