Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Empowering New York City’s Asian American Voters

Getting out the vote (photo: @SandraForNY1)

Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the United States and in New York City. Yet for too long, Asian Americans have faced challenges participating in elections. We now make up over 17% of New York City’s total population, making us a significant part of the city’s racial diversity, cultural fabric, and electoral politics. However, we often are not included in voter outreach and face extra barriers to casting our votes. As we gear up for an important election, it’s time to acknowledge and uplift the power of Asian American voters.

Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) voter turnout has historically been stymied by language barriers and a lack of translated voter materials, which is especially impactful given that 45% of Asian Americans in New York City have limited English proficiency. We are also vulnerable to voter suppression tactics, such as higher rejection rates of ballots cast by Asian Americans and limitations on mail-in voting, which Asian Americans are more likely to use. This has placed the label of “unlikely voters” on our community, which in turn causes officials and candidates to not bother to engage with us, creating a vicious cycle.

With elections affecting so many important policies and services, from funding to safety to empowerment resources, it is more important than ever to keep in mind how New York City’s rapidly growing AAPI voting community will be affected.

Asian New Yorkers make up at least 10% of the population in more than one-half of New York City Council districts, but there are neighborhoods with concentrated Asian voters. In these concentrations, it is actually easier and more effective for candidates and campaigns to canvass them and make voting more accessible. Such as by making a few adjustments to the already existing system, providing interpreters at polling sites, or offering translated candidate and campaign information. 

The good news is there are evidence-backed, actionable ways to break this cycle and make Asian Americans very likely voters. In a new study this year, the Asian American Federation’s AAPI Power Coalition measured the effectiveness of different voter outreach techniques and found that face-to-face canvassing and phone banking with multilingual callers were the best ways to directly reach Asian American voters with limited English proficiency.

Multilingual voting guides with practical information on how to vote also increased turnout, as well as leveraging community events in historically low turnout areas to create a stronger culture of voting. These tactics drove an 11-percentage-point increase in voter turnout among targeted Asian voters, compared to their non-targeted counterparts.

Asian Americans can also be better accommodated once we reach the polls with more on-site translators in the myriad of Asian languages spoken in New York City.

Already, we are seeing a growth in Asian American electoral participation. As the AAF report highlights, in the 2021 New York City primary, 27.1% of Asian voters cast ballots. That was the highest turnout rate of any racial minority group, surpassing Black voters at 26.5% and Hispanics at 17.4%. It was also an 11-percentage point increase in Asian voter turnout since 2013, the last time there was a competitive mayoral primary in the city.

As our community grows rapidly in both size and voter turnout rate, it’s clear that Asian Americans are poised to become a powerful voting bloc in New York. It is in the interest of all candidates and election officials to build the foundation now for our voices to be heard, with accessible, translated voting information and meaningful outreach.

Sandra Ung is a New York City Council member representing parts of Queens and Chair of the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations. Jo-Ann Yoo is the Executive Director of the Asian American Federation. On Twitter @SandraForNY1 & @AAFederation.

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