Karima Reyes, center, takes a vote button from a representative with the… (Glenn Koenig, Los Angeles…)
Michael Wahl is aware that he has a choice — President Obama or Mitt Romney. "It's either this guy or that guy," the Cal Poly Pomona sophomore says.
But he didn't know about the candidates lower on the ballot, or the measures that could shape California's future — until volunteers came to his ethnic studies class one evening with a video aimed at convincing Asian Americans to turn out on election day.
Wahl, who is half-Chinese, is among the thousands of prospective voters targeted in what is probably the most aggressive push yet to unlock the Asian vote in Southern California.
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Thirteen community-based groups have joined ranks in a "Your Vote Matters!" blitz of mailers, multilingual phone banks and online tool kits for Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Pacific Islander, South Asian, Thai and Vietnamese voters.
In Chinatown, there's a get-out-the-vote T-shirt campaign. Gurdwaras — places of worship for Sikhs — are being used to distribute voting information and videos in Punjabi. A "Does Your Asian Mom Vote" video produced by the San Gabriel Valley's Fung Brothers draws viewers on YouTube. And multilingual posters, buttons and stickers proclaiming "I'm Asian and I Vote" are being distributed.
Nearly 18 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders live in the U.S., the fastest-growing ethnic group in the nation, according to the census. Yet Asian Americans remain one of the most politically underorganized, underengaged segments, with only 55% of them registered to vote — the lowest among all races.
In California, Asian Americans make up 10% of the registered voters — a coveted source of potential ballots considering that a recent survey conducted by UC Berkeley and UC Riverside professors shows that 1 in 3 Asian Americans voters remain undecided on who should be president.
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Although Asian Americans overall are trending Democratic in their voting patterns, many are highly independent in party allegiances, the study found.
"There should be no excuse when it comes to trying to outreach to this population," says Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate professor of political science at UC Riverside, who, with co-author Taeku Lee of UC Berkeley, released the survey earlier this month.
Mainstream efforts to get out the vote often lack the cultural relevance needed to reach diverse communities, says Tanzila Ahmed, voter engagement manager at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.
Political activism, says Andrew Fung, who wrote the video with his older brother David, "sometimes "requires creating a culture around it — making the idea cool, making it relevant. A lot of kids who vote saw their parents vote. And if we see more Asian immigrant parents vote, we'll make an impact."
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Political consultant Ron Wong calls Asian Americans "pocketbook voters, focused mainly on practical issues that affect their day-to-day lives. When those issues are highlighted, and they learn about them in their own language, that will get them to the polls."
"You don't see the same kind of outreach to Asian groups as to other groups such as African Americans and Latinos," says Ramakrishnan, of UC Riverside. "National campaigns with enormous resources at their disposal aren't paying careful attention, especially when it comes to advertising and education. What they don't understand is that for these communities with a large foreign-born population, people have less experience with the political system so they need and are willing to learn more."
To educate voters, election materials in Los Angeles County are available in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese — and now, for the first time — Hindi, Khmer and Thai, says Eugene Lee, voting rights project director at the legal center. In Orange County, election material also is available in most of the languages.
"It's a tremendous amount of outreach," says Rowena Robles, program manager at the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance, whose work focuses on civic engagement and empowerment. "But it's exciting and it's happening at a crucial time."