As she prepares to vote for the first time, Nirmala Singh says she can still feel the trauma of gender-based violence that’s been rippling through her life since childhood. When she was 5 years old and living in Guyana, her aunt was murdered by a former intimate partner. Moving to the U.S. as a teenager, Singh was surprised to see the same problems from back home reflected in the country she had once viewed as holding the promise for a better life.
Now 26, she’s watched for years as other immigrant women in her Queens neighborhood of New York — some who share her Indo-Caribbean identity — die in similar circumstances. A lack of access to reproductive care is one of the biggest holes she sees. Singh got her U.S. citizenship this year, and she’s using it to cast her first ballot.
“When Roe v. Wade was overturned, I remember you could hear this eerie silence for women, especially immigrant women, across the United States,” said Singh, who works with the South Queens Women’s March. “I’m worried that we’re not going to have the same freedom, the same access that we did before — that these services will be taken away. So that’s what’s really driving me to the polls.”
Health care is the top priority Asian American voters are taking to the ballot box, according to the 2022 Asian American Voter Survey; experts say a big reason for that is the overturning of of Roe v. Wade and the mounting restrictions on reproductive rights across the country. With studies finding that Asian American and Pacific Islanders show some of the highest levels of support for abortion rights, community leaders are expecting this issue to drive Asian Americans to the polls — many for the first time ever.
“AAPIs view abortion not as the singular act of abortion, but as health care,” said Varun Nikore, executive director of the nonprofit AAPI Victory Alliance. “We’ve seen the level of intensity of being pro-abortion resonates the most with younger people. ... Younger women under 30, their registration rates have grown exponentially. It happened when the Dobbs leak happened, and then it went to new heights after the Dobbs decision.”
A recent Pew Research Center study found that 74% of Asian Americans support abortion rights, a higher portion than any other ethnic group surveyed. While some researchers point to flaws in the polling (most notably that Pew only surveyed English speakers), they say there’s no doubt that Asians show the highest level of support when it comes to abortion rights.
Asians usually vote blue, and their rates of political engagement have surged over the past five years. Between 2014 and 2020, voter turnout for Asian Americans grew from 49.3% to 59.5%. The only group that saw higher gains was Pacific Islanders, whose turnout over the same time frame grew from 41.2% to 55.7%.
Asian Americans ranked health care as the top issue in deciding how they will vote next week, with 88% marking it as “very important” or “extremely important” in the voter survey. Jobs and the economy followed in importance, at 86%, and crime, at 83%.
The focus on health care in the Asian American electorate points in large part to a desire for abortion access, which is possibly paired with concern over the lingering effects of Covid, researchers said. The downfall of Roe has been the biggest health-related news event of the year, they said, and it’s not coincidental that it’s coinciding with renewed voter engagement around health care.
“That tells me that abortion rights and reproductive rights are likely what’s driving that prioritization,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of demographic data and policy research at AAPI Data. “It’s not like the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare is in the news.”
The costs are intimate, and Asian women are energized
Immigrant women and women of color like Singh say they know how personal and devastating the outcomes of abortion restrictions can be.
“I am very humbled to be able to go to the polls this year,” she said. “I think Asian and Indo-Caribbean women that are showing up to the polls, they really understand what the ramifications of Roe v. Wade being overturned are to our community.”
In a study by Survivors’ Agenda, a collective dedicated to providing resources for survivors of sexual violence, 69% of AAPI voters said they’re more likely to vote for a political candidate who is in favor of addressing sexual violence.
“South Asians view family as so important,” said Amrita Doshi, executive director of the South Asian survivor network SOAR. “People have very personal experiences with their reproductive health choices, and I think they want to fight to protect those. …Reproductive health care is health care, it’s about family planning, it’s also about economic security.”
Doshi says she’s worked with South Asian women ranging in age from their teens to their 60s, many of whom have been in the reproductive justice movement for years. Older community members and immigrants lean further to the right on abortion, Ramakrishnan said, but Doshi said even they are bringing their questions and hesitations to the table.
A younger crop of Asian voters newly engaged by the Dobbs ruling are initiating these conversations with their elders, too.
“Those conversations have been so siloed and privatized and shushed behind closed doors,” said Nashi Gunasekara, reproductive justice fellow at SOAR. “With the overturn of Roe v. Wade, everyone had an opinion about it. Families are talking about it now.”
For Asian immigrant women in their circles, these conversations represent a slow lifting of the burden that comes with keeping reproductive health in the shadows.
“I think that this is actually relieving for older generations,” Doshi said. “It’s relieving to finally see people care about issues that they’ve dealt with in private for so long. So many people have had experiences with miscarriages, abortion, the gamut. I think this is a really good signal that they can actually not hold so much shame around those choices.”
They both say that on a granular level, they’ve seen South Asians more politically engaged than ever.
“In my Sri Lankan community, I definitely see that there’s a vibrancy, there’s an energy. People really understand that this midterm election is so consequential,” Gunasekara said.
Getting voters to the polls post-Trump
The challenge, Ramachandran said, is ensuring people get to the polls to act on these priorities. The years 2018 and 2020 saw record high turnouts for Asian American voters, according to AAPI Data. But Ramachandran doesn’t know if that trend will continue.
“Those were years when Donald Trump was president,” he said. “So it will be important to see if ‘22 will build on that momentum, or whether it will fall back to earlier patterns where voter turnout tends to be relatively low among Asian Americans during midterm election years.”
Young Asian people, in particular, have the opportunity to turn the tide in close-call midterm elections, Nikore said. And based on his work with communities, he said their support for reproductive justice is intense.
“[Those] 18 to 30 are now the largest net voting bloc in the country,” he said. “They are going to be the most pivotal going forward in elections.”
In Texas, the state with one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, Asian voters feel a unique kind of pressure, he said.
“Texas is where the most people are going to be affected by this,” he said. “We know that Black, brown and newly immigrant AAPIs are inordinately affected by these laws. We think that’s going to lead to additional activation by people of color.”
Since young Asian Americans show such universally high support for abortion rights, even the most conservative ethnic groups under the umbrella are trending more progressive on reproductive health care, Nikore said.
Whether this energy will translate to votes on Election Day is still unknown, he said, but for those like Singh casting their first ballot in the name of reproductive justice, there’s a feeling that they’re doing what they can to move forward.
Singh says she’s seen how devastating it can be when the needs of immigrant women are ignored. With her vote, she hopes to do her part in changing that.
“I’m tired of this,” Singh said. “We’re not going to sit here and just let this happen to someone else. If we’re just able to give someone access to an abortion clinic or safe sex kits, I think it’s one step into moving the meter.”