Politicians Are Finally Paying Attention To Asian-American Voters — But Will It Be Enough To Earn Their Votes?

Why campaigns are finally taking our votes seriously, as they should have all along

For as long as I can remember, my hometown of Yorba Linda, California, was something of a Republican haven. Former President Ronald Reagan himself once said “all good Republicans go to die” in Orange County. He was born and raised right in my district, CA-39.

When we first moved to Yorba Linda over 15 years ago, the majority of our neighbors were white; today, most of the households on our street are Asian-American families. Between 2000 and 2018, the number of Asian-American people residing in the area grew from 11 percent to 18.5 percent, and that has coincided with how the district votes. There are currently more registered Democrats than Republicans in the county, and two years ago, key Republican districts in Orange County flipped blue: Gil Cisneros, Katie Porter, and Harley Rouda were among the Democrats who beat out their Republican adversaries on platforms that touted public safety, health care, and tax reform.

I wasn’t surprised. Young Asian-Americans from the 1.5 and newer generations tend to be more liberal than our first-generation parents and grandparents, who understandably prioritized economic survival. My family immigrated to the United States when I was 5, and my parents threw their all into setting up my dad’s new dental business within the American system and making sure I was on the path to get into a good college. As young Asian-Americans carve out our own lives in a precarious economy, many of us have an invested interest in the multitude of issues impacting our everyday lives.

Asian-Americans constitute 5.6 percent of the total U.S. population, but we’re also the fastest growing minority group. More of us are turning out to the polls every year, and politicians are finally taking our votes seriously, as they should have all along.

Take California. For the first time in its history, the state will hold its primary on the first Tuesday in in March — also known as Super Tuesday — instead of months later in June. Asian-American comprise 16 percent of eligible voters in California, the largest bloc of any state in the country. And in a race in which momentum is a critical factor in determining a candidate’s so-called electability, campaigns looking to the young Asian-American population. Simply put, these voters could help decide how California’s whopping 495 delegates are distributed among viable candidates.

If you ask these voters what issues they care about, you’ll get a range of answers, such as health care and immigration, especially given that around 1.7 million undocumented people in the U.S. are Asian. When it comes to the government, according to Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Asian-American respondents prefer a big government with more social services, such as Medicare for All; by contrast, only 39 percent of the general public feels the same way.

“I think [my parents] lean a little bit more conservative, even though most of their social values align with the Democratic Party,” Steve Kang, the vice president of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles (KAFLA), told MTV News. By contrast he is “more aligned to the Democratic Party.” That is indicative of a larger trend: Millennials and members of Generation Z have also grown more progressive across the political spectrum, but up to 44 percent of Asian-Americans are not formally affiliated with any political party, a slightly higher percentage than the 39 percent of the total population who call themselves independents.

Because campaigns can’t afford to ignore or take for granted the votes of young Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders any longer, many California-based nonpartisan groups, like VietRise and KAFLA, as well as the local branches of the Democratic and Republican parties, are working to elevate their legislative power. Like most outreach groups, they focus on phone banking, door-to-door knocking, and other targeted messaging with an emphasis on providing information in a multitude of languages. There’s also a push to recruit volunteers and staff from within the community.

Vincent Patin / MTV News

Young AAPI Voters

“There are good things happening and not so good things happening,” Representative Ted Lieu, one of 20 Asian-American politicians in Congress, told MTV News. “The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus is the largest in U.S. history.” But representation isn’t everywhere: He pointed to the fact that there are currently no Asian-American Supreme Court Justices on the bench as just one example of where there is still work to be done.Both the Orange County GOP and Democratic offices are staffed by or actively recruiting young Asian-Americans to work alongside more tenured politicos and make their voices heard in the decision-making process. And they have representation in positions of power — Young Kim, who is Korean-American, is running for Congress as a Republican; and 24-year-old Catt Phan, who is Vietnamese-American, is a full-time organizer at the California Democratic Party in Orange County.

“It’s my place to make sure that when [young voters] are looking for a space, the space we offer is safe,” Phan told MTV News. “We’re not closing the door on anyone who wants to have a conversation with us.”

I’ll admit: A part of me feels pissed off it took this long for the political establishment to pay so much attention to voters like me, especially after years of feeling isolated by the system. Asian-Americans have long been subject to persecution in the country, between the concentration camps that forcefully interred Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that temporarily suspended Chinese immigration; and the media’s demonization of Korean-Americans after the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Until 1952, Asian people couldn’t even become American citizens.

But it’s also affirming to see systemic changes that empower us — and other marginalized groups across racial and ethnic backgrounds. Any change matters, especially given that political structures too often disenfranchise vulnerable voters in an effort to maintain a white-majority status quo. Yet as the idea of who makes up the majority changes across the country, those systems are slowly being dismantled. It’s crucial that campaigns find ways to connect with people of all identities and the issues that matter to them.

“I like to say that if you move the Asian-American family forward, you move the American family forward,” Rep. Lieu said. “They’re identical issues.”