This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.
Correction, Aug. 24, 2016: An earlier version of this story about the Asian-American voting bloc inaccurately described Jerry Vattamala’s title on second and third reference. He is the director of the Democracy Program at Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York.
ST. PAUL, Minn. – 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 just 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.”
Language creates barriers to voting
One in 3 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 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.
Asian-Americans are part of the rapidly changing demographics of U.S. cities. For example, between 1990 and 2010, Philadelphia’s white population fell by a third – the Hispanic and Asian populations have filled that gap. Between 2000 and 2010, Philadelphia’s Asian-American population grew around 40 percent. Today, they make up 7 percent of the city.
Pockets of Asian-Americans have sprouted up in areas that used to be predominantly white. Former residents of industrial Chinatown, priced out by gentrification, have spread out. Ethnic grocery stores and Vietnamese bakeries have cropped up along Washington Avenue, a southern strip that runs the width of the city.
As the immigrant population grows, Philadelphia officials are trying to meet their needs at the polls. Spanish translation is federally required at Philadelphia’s polls, and the city will provide translators for other languages if polling places find translators willing to do the work.
In the 2016 primaries, the city hired and trained 41 Asian-language translators. But city officials say that the low pay – $105 max for a 13-hour day – doesn’t provide much incentive.
The city also has a phone-in translation service available to second-language citizens who need help with any government interaction. At voting booths, instruction cards tell people how to reach the language hotline. But advocates said those language cards aren’t always present, or that poll workers aren’t always trained to refer the hotline to second-language voters.
City Commissioner Lisa Deeley, one of three Philadelphia officials who oversees voting in the city, wants the city to require language translation cards at every polling place. The cards are currently translated into more than 20 languages.
“There’s an election every six months in Philadelphia. We need to make sure that everybody is taking advantage of their right to vote – whether it’s in English or Chinese or Vietnamese,” Deeley said. “Residents who need assistance should be able to get it with as much ease as possible.”
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. These limited-English voters, like Wang Mua, Yolanda Loura, Nou Moua and Yer Yang, rely on translators, who are federally required in St. Paul, to help them vote.
Each of the four women said they vote every time there’s a presidential election.
Behind the row of food stands at the annual Fourth of July weekend Hmong festival, these women sliced fruit in a circle amid smoke from nearby grills. To communicate with English speakers, they relied on translator Kaohly Her.
“Society does not find any value in us anymore because we are old, and we are useless, but we can still vote and our voice still matters,” they said through Her. “‘We fought our way to this country, we made it here and this is the least we can do.’”
Although a translator may help them read the ballot at the polls, the service doesn’t necessarily help them prepare. This election, for example, the women said they were planning to vote for President Barack Obama.
“They don’t always get the information that they need in a way that they can process the information,” Her said. “They rely a lot on the rest of us who do speak the language to be able to tell them.”
Cultural issues may thwart voting
When David Oh won his seat on the Philadelphia City Council in 2011, Oh, a Korean-American, 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.”
Martorell, of the Thai center in Los Angeles, explained that most Thai immigrants since the 1980s have come from the country’s poor, rural corners, and many have little education or work skills. Politics aren’t a part of their lives. Oftentimes, they ask her staff members for help, which nonprofits aren’t legally allowed to give.
“They don’t know the difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party,” she said. “They don’t know the difference between liberal and conservative.”
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.”
Many Asian-Americans say they’re not treated equally
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, the democracy program’s 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 said she received a letter from Jefferson Parish officials saying she needed to prove her citizenship to register to vote. Mai only had 10 days to do so – and she said she didn’t see the time constraint.
Her name did briefly appear on the online voter rolls, but the parish sent Mai a letter saying its office had reason to believe she was not a U.S. citizen, so she could not register to vote. The letter said Mai had 21 days to prove her citizenship, but it did not include instructions on how to do so, according to her attorney. Officials removed Mai’s name from the online voter rolls.
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.”
Expert: Asians must become part of ‘machine’
Andy Toy, a spokesman for Philadelphia’s chapter of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, said there’s still work to be done in his city.
It’s a “machine town,” where the white machine and black machine are well-established political players, he said. There is no Asian machine.
Toy compared these machines to “old boys networks” or fraternities. Asian-Americans haven’t developed those long-standing political dynamics, he said. At least not in Philadelphia.
“Machines often come with a promise of a job or a connection to something to get something done,” he said. “(They) haven’t been around enough to have the sense that you have to kiss somebody’s ring to do something. … And it’s not always bad, but that’s the way it is.”
Toy said the machines show the strength of those particular demographics. To become a political player, Asian-Americans must increase their population or increase voter turnout.
The group is increasing its population, largely thanks to its immigrant population. According to the Pew Research Center, Asians make up the largest group of recent immigrants. Seventy-four percent of Asian-American adults were born outside the U.S.
And that’s one potential reason this demographic hasn’t seen big bumps in voter turnout. More than half of the respondents in the Pew survey said they see themselves as different from “typical Americans.”
Vattamala, the democracy program’s 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 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.”
Rep. Judy Chu, congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus chairwoman, said people are starting to pay attention to the Asian vote because it could affect certain swing areas.
“(My group is) pushing very hard to target the swing votes in the swing states for this presidential election,” she said. “That’s Nevada, that’s Virginia and even includes Pennsylvania. So we need to make sure that we concentrate on those particular states and ensure that we register those (Asian-Americans), and we motivate them to go out to vote.”