From Hamtramck, Michigan, to Las Vegas, Nevada, activists are pushing states to ensure growing Asian American and Pacific Islander communities can be equally represented in government during the once-in-a-decade redistricting process.
Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the United States and now make up more than 10% of the population in Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Washington and Nevada.
The demographic group — though diverse politically, linguistically and economically — has become a powerful voting bloc in these states and elsewhere. Though Republicans made gains in 2020, Asian American and Pacific Islander voters have mostly supported Democratic presidential candidates since 2000. In Nevada, they were a key constituency that candidates courted in the last presidential primary.
For nearly two years, anti-Asian discrimination and violence prompted by the pandemic has politically engaged and unified the community, activists and academics said.
Historically, the Asian American community hasn’t been large or unified enough to challenge political maps in court. But data showing political cohesion among different subsets of the demographic group has amplified calls to consider it a community of interest in redistricting.
“If we all just identify as our ethnicity in itself, it’s not significant enough in numbers to negotiate, to build power or to become centered,” said Eric Jeng of Nevada’s Asian Community Development Council. “Our community shares concerns on immigration, health care, and education. And when anti-Asian hate was rising, they weren’t asking for where you’re from. People who looked Asian got attacked.”
Nevada has more than 400,000 residents who identify as Asian American, Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian, according to census data. The majority live in the Las Vegas area and are of Filipino, Chinese, Japanese or Vietnamese descent.
The population increased by 47.3% over the past decade — more than three times as much as the overall population — largely in areas like Spring Valley and southwest Las Vegas.
But the growth also exemplifies the competing interests that arise during the redrawing of congressional and state legislative districts.
Questions over whether to prioritize drawing compact districts, protecting incumbents or drawing majority Asian American statehouse districts will inevitably confront Nevada’s Democratic-controlled Legislature with difficult decisions when they meet to conduct redistricting.
At least four Nevada lawmakers identify as Asian American but none represent the areas of southwest Las Vegas where the population is most concentrated.
In the Assembly, Speaker Jason Frierson, Assistant Majority Whip Sandra Jauregui and Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager represent neighboring districts where the population is 28% to 30% Asian American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
In the state Senate, Democrats Dallas Harris and Melanie Scheible’s abutting districts are 31% and 27% Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander.
Groups like the Asian Community Development Council and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada want the Democratic-controlled Legislature to draw AAPI-majority districts to encourage political participation and ensure the demographic’s voting power isn’t diluted or gerrymandered.
Jeng said non-Asian politicians who represent districts with large Asian American populations often enjoy broad support and champion issues that matter to the community, but he wants districts to be drawn in a way that ensures Asian American candidates won’t be deterred from running.
“When people that look like them represent them, then the community gets involved more. When they don’t see people representing them who look like them, they don’t really participate,” Jeng said, noting Michelle Wu and Aftab Pureval’s victories in mayoral elections last week in Boston and Cincinnati.
The communities that fall under the umbrella “AAPI” — which stands for Asian American and Pacific Islander — are diverse, but survey data shows the group is relatively united about certain political issues, said University of Maryland professor Janelle Wong.
“There’s so much discussion about Asian American diversity,” said Wong, who also works as co-director of AAPI Data. “But one of the most critical and astounding features of the Asian American community is that, despite this tremendous diversity, there’s actually a remarkable level of consensus around particular issues.”
Asian American Republicans are more likely to support the Affordable Care Act than other Republicans and, across income brackets, they’re similarly likely to support increasing taxes on the rich, with those who make more than $250,000 annually almost as supportive as those who make less, Wong said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada is lobbying lawmakers to draw at least one district in which a majority of residents are Asian American or Pacific Islander to ensure the growing group’s voting power isn’t diluted.
“We’re concerned that, if the Legislature were to advance maps that are relatively the same as they stand today, it would result in the dilution of voting power in Nevada’s growing AAPI community that has and continues to be woefully underrepresented statewide,” Athar Haseebullah, the group’s executive director, told lawmakers at an October committee hearing.