Low Asian American Voter Turnout: What Keeps Them Away from the Polls?

Asians were the fastest growing racial group in the United States between 2000 and 2010, and were just behind Hispanics in terms of growth when race and ethnicity are considered together: the Hispanic population grew by 43.0% while the non-Hispanic Asian population grew by 42.9% (See Figure 1).

While non-Hispanic Asians made up 4.7% of the U.S. population in 2010, they made up 12.6% of the NYC population and saw by far the greatest increase of all racial and ethnic groups (31.8% since 2000, see Figure 2).

The Asian American Vote

Asian Americans are not only growing in population size but are also emerging as a voting bloc. AAPI Data reports that the number of Asian American registered voters almost doubled between 2000 and 2012, from 2.05 million to 3.90 million voters. In addition, the number of organizations serving Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that participated in National Voter Registration Day more than doubled from 2012 to 2014 (from 154 to 317 organizations).

At the same time, research has shown that voter turnout is lower among Asian Americans than other racial and ethnic groups. The Equality Indicators’ analysis of voter turnout data from the CUNY Center for Urban Research found that individuals living in majority-Asian census tracts were less likely to have voted in the 2014 election in New York City (13.9% compared to 22.3% of majority white, 21.3% of majority black, and 16.5% of majority Hispanic census tracts). While a Pew Research Center survey found that the reason for low Asian American voter turnout was that voters were “too busy,” advocates have pointed to other reasons, including the lack of attention paid to the interests of the Asian American community by politicians and candidates. Given the size and diversity of the Asian American electorate, advocates and researchers are pushing for a deeper understanding of this population.

Enter the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), which recently released the findings from their 2016 exit poll of Asian American voters. The AALDEF poll differs from other exit polls in two important ways. First, the AALDEF poll surveyed 13,846 Asian American voters, more than 14 times the number surveyed in the National Election Pool exit poll. Second, AALDEF’s survey was conducted in English and 11 Asian languages by volunteers who were conversant in 23 Asian languages and dialects, making the survey accessible to Asian American voters that are Limited English Proficient (LEP). It is also worth noting that Asians were added as a race category in national exit polls for the first time in 1992. AALDEF has been conducting exit polls since 1988.

AALDEF’s survey includes a level of detail on Asian American voters that few other resources provide. The report includes data on 10 ethnic groups and 12 language groups, as well as nativity, English proficiency, education level, and whether participants were first-time voters. Data are also collected on political party affiliation and opinions on several issues.

Below are some notable findings from the report:

  • Almost one in three survey participants (30%) said they were first-time voters, or double the rate of first-time voters among all racial groups.
  • Almost one in three (32%) participants were LEP, meaning they read English less than “very well.” Seven percent said that a lack of language access made it difficult to vote, and 15% said they relied on interpreters or translated materials.
  • While the majority of voters surveyed (59%) were registered Democrats and 12% were registered Republicans, more than a quarter (27%) were not enrolled in any political party, making these voters ineligible to vote in primary elections in some states.


Language Access

Language access for Asian American voters is one of the issues highlighted in AALDEF’s report. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires localities to provide all registration and voting documents in the language of a minority group if the group meets certain thresholds in terms of population size, depressed literacy rates, and limited English proficiency. Asian language minorities are one of four core groups covered under Section 203 (along with Spanish, Native American, and Alaskan Native language minorities). The groups are updated every five years based on Decennial Census and American Community Survey data. Currently, eight Asian language groups are covered in 27 cities and counties in 12 states.

Achieving language access does not always end with designation under Section 203, however. It is up to the local election boards to comply, and sometimes legal action is necessary to ensure that local jurisdictions uphold the designations. In Queens, for example, Bengali became a designated language in 2011 but it was not until 2013 when AALDEF sued the NYC Board of Elections that ballots and other voting materials were properly translated.

For localities that do not have language assistance under Section 203, Section 208 provides another option for LEP voters by allowing them to choose someone to assist them at the poll site. However, Section 208 has also been threatened in some states. In Texas, for example, state law required voters and their interpreters to be registered in the same county, prompting AALDEF to sue the State of Texas.

It is clear that there is still much to learn about Asian American voters, but AALDEF’s survey and others provide new insight into this diverse and growing electorate. AALDEF’s exit poll is also an important source of information about language access issues and other violations of the Voting Rights Act. For example, they found that Asian American voters encountered several problems this past November in New York City. In Brooklyn, Muslim voters reported that they were told to show voter ID, and in Queens, a voter was reportedly told to “vote down the line.” Addressing these issues and holding local election boards accountable are crucial steps toward protecting voting rights and lessening inequalities in political participation.