Moderated by David Ibata
Today’s page addresses the potential for greater Asian-American participation in civic affairs. The head of an Atlanta-area legal advocacy center says Republicans and Democrats need to engage recently naturalized immigrant voters to expand their political base. And the first Asian-American elected official in the Georgia Legislature talks of encouraging a greater turnout of these voters.
By Helen Kim Ho
Any political party interested in expanding its base in Georgia must engage immigrant voters — those who have come to this country recently and become naturalized citizens.
Take Gwinnett County, with 4.5 percent Asian, 4.8 percent Latino and 25 percent African-American active voters. While voter turnout as a whole went down between the last two presidential elections at both state and county levels, voter turnout in Gwinnett increased among immigrants.
In the 2012 Duluth House district race, state Rep. Pedro Marin — the Democratic incumbent who was redistricted to a majority-Republican district running through New Koreatown — won in large part due to Asian-American voters. He also won by a larger margin there than in his former majority-Democratic district.
What can be deduced from Marin’s race is that while many Asian-Americans identify as Republican — slightly more than 50 percent, based on an exit poll we conducted in 2010 — they vote ultimately on issues.
A voter survey we conducted this year of hundreds of voters in Gwinnett found 20 percent saying they voted based on party loyalty.
The percentage of white voters in Georgia is on the decline. Georgia is growing more urban and less rural. Counting on the vote of avowed Democrats in the state won’t win or influence larger elections. And token, last-minute pleas to immigrant voters with top-down messaging don’t work.
That’s where knowledge of what issues catalyze immigrant civic participation can help win votes.
Our 2013 Voter Survey, which included a majority of Asian respondents, asked respondents to select their top priorities from a list of 11 issues.
The top three issues were public education, economic equity/small business and access to health care. Immigration was also important, but as a secondary issue alongside transportation and public safety.
AALAC’s 2014 policy agenda reflects the interests of our immigrant electorate. We are pushing for greater protection against cyberbullying, an epidemic that depresses educational achievement and impacts all children. Many may not know that Asian teens are the most frequently cyberbullied of all race groups, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
We will continue to educate on the dangers of mandatory E-Verify policies, a resource drain on small businesses and disproportionately harmful to legal immigrant workers who are 30 times more likely to be falsely flagged by this database as “illegal” to work.
We are also advocating for policies that would allow workers to use earned sick time to care for ill family members.
Finally, we are educating people on the Affordable Care Act. We’ve found voters from both parties value increased access and affordable options for health insurance.
Learning to speak about these issues in a way that resonates with immigrant voters requires investment and interest in this new American electorate. It takes a long-term vision and realization that the face of Georgia has changed.
Helen Kim Ho is executive director of the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center in Decatur. She also is the wife of Rodney Ho, AJC entertainment blogger.
By B.J. Pak
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 to 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 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.