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Asian American eligible voter population has ballooned 139 percent in 20 years: report

The group is the fastest-growing demographic of eligible voters compared to all other major races and ethnicities.
A voter drops off her election ballot at a drop box in Portland, Oregon
A voter drops off her election ballot at a drop box in Portland, Ore.Richard Clement / Reuters file

As the U.S. moves closer to the November election, the number of Asian American eligible voters will hit a record high, a new report from the Pew Research Center revealed Thursday.

The report examines the Asian American electorate, which is made up of more than 11 million eligible voters. Among the significant findings, the research noted that the number of those voters ballooned by 139 percent in the past 20 years, making Asian Americans the fastest-growing demographic of eligible voters compared to all other major races and ethnicities. In contrast, the white electorate grew by 7 percent in the same period.

Christine Chen, executive director of the civic engagement nonprofit APIAVote, said the group has amassed enough influence to have a profound impact in some races and, in some cases, swing districts.

"If candidates work to reach out to our communities — many of which have low English proficiency — and work to push issues they care about, we could definitely see an impact in November," she told NBC Asian America.

The Asian American electorate, while diverse, is overwhelmingly represented by six origin groups — Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese — aligning with the main demographics that make up the greater racial group. These eligible voters are unique in that they stand as the only group composed of a majority of naturalized immigrants, who doubled in number from 2000 to 2018 and account for two-thirds of the electorate.

The electorate also stands out in that roughly 71 percent of the eligible voting population speaks English at home or says they speak the language "very well," a lower percentage than among all other major races. However, when broken down by ethnicity, English proficiency varies considerably, with 91 percent of Japanese Americans reporting that they speak the language at least "very well" and less than half of Burmese Americans saying the same.

Asian Americans lean largely Democrat. But as confirmed by research from AAPI Data from 2018, ethnic groups vary widely in party affiliation. Indian Americans are more likely to identify as Democratic, at 50 percent, while Vietnamese Americans are more likely to identify as Republican, at 42 percent.

Asian Americans have the highest educational attainment, with roughly half obtaining bachelor's degrees or higher; however there are significant disparities among subgroups. Indian Americans are most likely to have bachelor's degrees, at 65 percent. Compare that with the 19 percent of Cambodian American eligible voters who do, as well. Income among Asian American voters also varies greatly across ethnic lines, with Indian eligible voters making the highest median household income, at $139,000, and Burmese Americans making the lowest median income at $69,000.

While the findings reveal some "exciting" growth, they don’t mean voter turnout will match eligibility, and many are still left behind, Chen said. Due to barriers including insufficient access to voter information in their languages and a lack of outreach to Asian American voters, there continues to be a disparity in engagement.

"In 2018, we reached out to a number of Vietnamese voters in California’s Orange County prior to the elections who were limited English proficient. They wanted to vote but had no idea who was on the ballot and clearly had no outreach from either political party," Chen said. "We know that Asian American voters already report low outreach from both political parties, but we know that this outreach, especially targeted outreach in-language, can make a difference."

Chen also said there remains a lack of investment in AAPI community organizations and nonprofits that run civic engagement initiatives.

"It's only in the last decade where AAPI nonprofits are starting to secure funds to implement voter engagement programs," she said. "Compared to other communities, we are seeing that our investments are still very low."

However, Chen also said that Asian Americans tend to be issue voters and that given current events — particularly around the COVID-19 pandemic, which is affecting the group on many fronts, including making it the target of racist hate attacks — she is hopeful for a positive trend.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see more folks becoming engaged for the 2020 elections," she said.