Sunday, October 22, 2006

Asian Pacific American Youth Voters: The Good News and Bad

There’s good news and bad news for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in a recent study of youth voting conducted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan research group CIRCLE: The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. In CIRCLE’s 2006 Civic and Political Health of the Nation Survey, supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, researchers conducted one of the most comprehensive, detailed studies to date of APA youths' attitudes about politics, voting, and the community issues that concern them. The results introduce a glimmer of light into an otherwise gloomy picture of today’s APA youth participation, but there's clearly a lot of room for improvement.

The Bad News: Young Asian American voters have been and remain the least likely to vote among all race/ethnic youth groups. Only 20 percent of Asian-American youth, ages 20 to 25, identified themselves as regular voters, according to Mark Hugo Lopez, Research Director at CIRCLE.

The Good News: The level of engagement in important community actions and political interest among APA youth seems to be on the rise – even soaring – outside the realm of electoral politics. “Even though most don’t vote, 51 percent – the highest result among the racial and ethnic groups surveyed – said they tried to persuade others in an election.”

So, how are we to account for being the most interested in politics and civic engagement, and the least likely to actually show up when push comes to shove? Is it really that young APAs are living up to our stereotype as the passive, submissive, keep-your-head-down non-players who just go along and kow-tow to decisions made from on high by those who more naturally lead? Or that they just don’t care, or feel they can be effective? Or is it something else?

There's no doubt that younger Asian Americans are fully capable of conducting highly organized, deeply impassioned activities in the interest of significant social concerns. Just imagine what kind of difference it could make if young APAs turned out at the polls with the same passion and energy – the leadership – we’ve seen in nationwide rallies and even hunger strikes for Asian American Studies, or in combating corporate stereotypes (Abercrombie & Fitch) and media ridicule (Details “Gay or Asian”)?
It could make a winning difference.

A new, objective study released in September by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center called Asian Americans “the new 'Sleeping Giant' in California politics,” with the number of eligible voters climbing by over half a million, from 2 million to 2.5 million, in just the five years between 2000 and 2005. Constituting 12 percent of eligible voters (and growing), the Asian American vote is moving toward the kind of role that Hispanics have taken over the last two decades. Asian Americans could well have the clout to swing the state’s 54 electoral votes, or allow the Terminator keep or lose his job.

But there are real obstacles to APA youth voting. As the nonpartisan voter education group APIA Vote showed in its presentation to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the 2004 election season, a host of problems and outright acts of discrimination conspired to suppress voting by young Asian Americans across the country – especially, but not exclusively, those who were recently naturalized immigrants. According to APIA Vote, problems ranged from unfamiliarity with the electoral process and new polling requirements, lack of language assistance and inaccurately translated materials, and discriminatory obstruction by poll workers.

The nonpartisan Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) has published detailed plans to protect voters' rights in the 2006 midterm elections, which will entail -- among other measures -- soliciting volunteers and monitors to help with language assistance and defending voters against harassment at the polls. The Asian Pacific American Legal Center’s Voting Rights Unit also monitors poll sites in areas with high Asian and Pacific Islander (API) population concentrations, and seeks volunteers to help with both monitoring and exit polling on Election Day, Nov. 7.