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America’s overlooked voters

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Esther Cepeda
May 1, 2011
— Would you rather have your vote taken for granted or be ignored? Neither is acceptable but that’s how it’s shaking out for Latinos and Asians as we head toward the 2012 elections—one group garners headlines about potentially delivering a re-election victory to President Obama, while the other continues to be overlooked by both political parties.

Lost in all the hype about Latinos being the largest and fastest-growing minority in the U.S.—and the hand-wringing about what this means for whites and African-Americans—is the skyrocketing Asian population. Asians have been the fastest-growing racial group in the past decade, experiencing a 43 percent increase, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures.


Sure, that still puts them at a mere 5 percent of the total U.S. population, but I’m going to go out on a limb here to predict that this very young community—Asians did not come to America in great numbers until after the 1965 Immigration Act made it possible for Asian immigrants to enter the country legally and become U.S. citizens—will soon be commanding our collective attention.


Let’s say you believe that college-ready high school graduates represent the country’s best hope for producing college grads who will be prepared to help the U.S. compete in a global economy. And you believe the conventional wisdom that education is the most important socioeconomic factor in voter turnout.


Look at the results of the ACT high school achievement test, taken by almost half of all high school graduates in 2010: 39 percent of all Asian/Pacific Islanders met the college readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math and science. By comparison, only 30 percent of whites, 11 percent of Hispanics and 4 percent of African-Americans met the same benchmarks.


College completion rates show that in 2010, approximately 67 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander first-time undergraduates attained a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent within six years, compared with 60 percent of whites, 48 percent of Hispanics, 42 percent of African-Americans, and 40 percent of American Indians/Alaska Natives.


As the years go by, these smart, well-educated new Americans—whose population is expected to double again by 2050—will become CEOs, policymakers, politicians and voters with clout.


Today those seeds are still being sown. According to the Pew Hispanic Center’s report “The Latino Electorate in 2010,” Asian voters are as unengaged as are Hispanics. A little over 50 percent of Asians are eligible to vote, yet turnout for the midterm elections was just 31 percent, compared to 48.6 percent of whites, 44 percent of blacks and 31.2 percent of Latinos.


“It’s easy to simplify Asian voters. People say we don’t vote, don’t care, are less engaged—generally we get put at the bottom of the voter heap,” said Karin Wang, vice president of programs at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, a California-based civil rights group that works with other national Asian organizations to boost voting.


She said many factors drive down Asian participation, not the least of which are the disproportionately high number of un-naturalized immigrants and language and cultural barriers stemming from a diverse community comprised of people from as many as 54 countries. But it’s changing rapidly.


“We’re really at a turning point now. We’re seeing a second and third generation that sees itself as American first and more pan-Asian than of a particular ethnic group,” Wang told me. “Asians are ripe to be targeted as voters because they’ve rarely been targeted by politicians or parties before. That’s an opportunity—if you look at the data, Asian voters don’t have strong identification with either political party. And they’re more likely to vote early and be way more responsive to get-out-the-vote efforts such as Election Day phone appeals than other groups.”


They’re more optimistic about making an impact, as well. The Pew Report noted that among Hispanics, whites and blacks, Asians were the least likely to believe that their vote “wouldn’t make a difference.”


Politicians are smart to fall all over themselves to engage Latino voters. The really shrewd ones will take the lessons they learn from efforts to connect with a young, diverse community with multiple economic and social interests, and start applying them to reaching Asian voters. And the sooner, the better.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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