The RunTerns | We Still Need to Prioritize AAPI Civic Engagement
RunTerns are the group of college aged interns at Run for Something. They are bold young leaders from across the country that work with us to gain practical experience in the political arena.
By Sora Heo
The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) electorate is a formidable community with the power to influence upcoming critical elections in November 2022 and beyond. From 2000 to 2020, the number of Asian American eligible voters grew by 139%, marking AAPIs as the fastest growing voting bloc. In the coming years, the AAPI electorate is projected to double from 5.9 million eligible voters in 2015 to 12.2 million in 2040.
Yet, historically, the voter turnout rate for Asian Americans has been one of the most dismal in the United States. In the 2020 presidential election, Asian American voters made up only 4% of the 2020 electorate — approximately 50% of their portion of the total population. As of 2020, AAPIs make up 7.2% of the U.S. population, but they make up less than 1% of elected officials.
As an Asian American, I am hesitant to attribute this to an apolitical stasis within AAPI communities. I have been imbued with an urgency for social progress by virtue of growing up in a Korean family. In 1980, my father was one of hundreds of student protesters in the notorious Gwangju Uprising, where a small town assembled to confront the violent military dictatorship engulfing the nation — a pivotal step towards South Korea’s democratization. Truly, democratic protest is embedded in our history — whether it was in the face of Japanese Internment Camps during World War II or targeted anti-immigration laws spanning two centuries, this community possesses an incredibly impressive record of resistance against political injustice. In 2021, with the spike of anti-Asian hate crimes, AAPI communities from every corner mobilized in mass amounts and spoke out against racism and injustice against their people. Simultaneously, AAPI communities stood alongside Black communities in the wake of violence against Black civilians as part of the “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” movement.
Despite low recorded percentages, civic engagement is not dwindling among the AAPI community. Census data reveals Asian Americans increased their voter turnout rate by more than any other racial or ethnic group between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. AAPI voter turnout increased 10 percentage points, while Hispanic and White voters respectively grew by 6 points and Black voters increased by 3 points.
The U.S. has more AAPI representation in government and on the ballot than they have had in decades. Currently, there are over 600 AAPI elected leaders throughout all levels of government, according to the National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac. Major cities like Boston and Cincinnati made history last year after electing their first AAPI mayors — Michelle Wu and Aftab Pureval.
The momentum cannot halt here, though. Civic organizations have cited dearth of in-language civics education, discriminatory voting policies, and lack of outreach as significant barriers. Generally, candidates have neglected this electorate due to them being concentrated in “noncompetitive” regions and the “high cost” of reaching a community that speaks hundreds of languages and has varying policy priorities. But as the Asian American and Pacific Islander population continues to surge, they have proven crucial in swing states like Georgia. In the 2020 presidential election, for example, turnout among Asian American voters in Georgia was 62,000 more than in 2016.
To unleash the full potential of this bloc, there is much work to be done. AAPI civic engagement will prove pivotal in the upcoming midterm elections and beyond; candidates, officials, and other relevant entities must utilize every tool in their arsenal to amplify the political voice and power of this community.
Sora Heo is a quadrilingual, proud Korean American hailing from Chicago, Illinois. She is a senior at the University of California San Diego majoring in International Relations and Political Science.