Asians step nearer the US ballot box

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 September, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 September, 1996, 12:00am

A stroll along the streets of San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York is enough to remind many Americans that Asian-Americans are becoming the country's fastest-growing ethnic minority.

Statistics back it up: Asian Americans, including Pacific islanders, now number about 9.5 million in the US, a figure expected to more than double by 2010. Far from being concentrated in California, they outnumber blacks in 15 of the 50 states, and Hispanics in 11.

The often dazzling success of Chinese and Korean immigrants, notably in education, has added new nuances to the hot political debate on immigration levels and whether to continue with affirmative action and minority quotas in jobs and college places.

Despite the growing impact of Asian-American immigration on society, where is its parallel effect on politics? There are only five Asian members of Congress, and three represent their native Hawaii; there are no state governors (although that may soon change), and even in areas of concentrated migration, local and state legislators of Asian origin are few.

In this election year, it is especially pertinent to ask: where are the Asian voters? Even though less than half of the Asian immigrants are citizens - and therefore eligible to vote - only 41 per cent of those able to go to the polls in the 1994 federal elections turned out. This ethnic group also suffers from the lowest voter registration.

But with national politicians beginning to focus on issues of direct concern to Asian-Americans, a coalition of 19 community groups has banded together to carry out the first national voter registration campaign for the minority. The campaign has set up a hotline in eight Asian languages, and is sending volunteers into shops, churches, restaurants and community centres in Asian hubs all over the country, telling immigrants how to register.

Asian celebrities, such as actor Russell Wong and TV comedian Margaret Cho, are also about to do their part, appearing in national public service announcements campaign targeted at the notoriously 'poll-o-phobic' 18-24 age group. The goal is to register at least 100,000 new Asian voters by November's presidential, state and congressional elections.

To gauge how this new wave of Americans will be able to immerse themselves in the whirlpool of American politics, one first has to understand why they have been lethargic until now. Christine Chen of the registration campaign attributes it to the historical roots of Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean migrants, many of whom fled repressive regimes where democratic representation was minimal and where involvement in politics was often downright dangerous. (It is notable too that Vietnamese-Americans tend to prefer Republican candidates, especially those preaching an end to that cliche, 'big government').

In the American context, Asian immigrants' apathy can also be linked to two basic deficiencies: a lack of political issues to vote upon, as well as the right people to vote for. In both these areas, things are slowly changing.

Two issues brought to a head by the Republican-led Congress have finally struck at the heart of the previously apolitical Asian community: plans to cut back on immigration and the overhaul of the welfare system, which will sharply reduce financial aid to both legal and illegal immigrants alike. Not only did several pressure groups rally against these initiatives when they were announced, but they used them to induce Asian citizens to get registered to vote.

The Asian-American voice of protest was heard loudly in Congress, which so far has bowed to pressure by putting on hold its plans to trim annual quotas for family reunion immigration visas. But the welfare reform bill has passed, and the registration campaign is telling its clients that if they register, they can inform Washington what they think.

'Asian-Americans have finally found issues they can identify with, and when we go out to see people, we are making sure we bring these issues up with them,' said Ms Chen.

Daphne Kwok, of the Organisation of Chinese Americans, said: 'Anti-immigration attitudes in the US have really riled the Asian community, and people are finally wanting to know how they can vote.' But what about the right candidates? Clearly, what the community is crying out for is more of its own. No new Asian-Americans are likely to be elected to Congress this year, with the few names on show having fallen at the party primary stage. But one man in Washington state may give the movement at least a symbolic boost.

Gary Locke, the son of Chinese immigrants, is the Democrats' choice to fight for the state governorship, and is tipped to beat his Republican rival. A former state legislator and chief executive of a county administration in the Seattle area, Mr Locke stands to become the nation's first Asian-American governor - a feat that will bring him national acclaim and turn him into a poster boy for the Asian community's move into the political mainstream.

'To have Gary Locke as a governor would be tremendous for Asian-Americans, and it's important to have more Asian-American candidates,' said Ms Kwok.

It is probably too early for the Asian-American voting bloc to be taken seriously as a political force in the same way the 'black vote' is coveted by both major parties. But in Congressional districts with high Asian populations, the campaign believes the vote could make a difference.