‘They noticed the difference we can make’: Why the Asian-American vote is important this election

Sunny Kim

Editor's Note: This is the third installment of The Texan’s series “Raising Voices,” which highlights issues of diversity at UT. Stories are produced in partnership with UT’s chapters of Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association.

Quynhanh Tran grew up in Sugar Land, Texas, in a “typical Asian immigrant family” that rarely discussed politics.

But after watching former state Sen. Wendy Davis filibuster for 12 hours to try to block the Texas senate from passing a restrictive abortion bill in 2013, Tran, an immigrant from Vietnam and Plan II, economics and government senior, said she became interested in politics when she realized Texas politicians didn’t represent her values or interests as an Asian-American woman. 

“I remember watching it and just being so angry that these white men in Texas Legislature were restricting women’s rights in the name of women’s health,” Tran said. 

Tran then started studying women’s rights and began interning at the Legislature her sophomore year.

Asian-American communities and first-generation Asian immigrants, such as Tran’s family, historically have lower voter turnout than other demographics. But the younger second and third generations of Asian-Americans are increasingly turning out to vote, government professor Sean Theriault said. 

First-generation Asian-Americans are especially focused on providing for their families and therefore rarely vote, Theriault said. But with higher education and assimilation levels, younger Asian-Americans are beginning to become an increasingly important voting bloc for the Democratic Party.

“As the Asian-American population continues to grow, and if they continue to express themselves more democratically, it could have a bigger effect in 2020 and a bigger effect in 2022 and going forward,” Theriault said. 

This gradual shift in the Asian-American community to vote more for the Democratic Party seems to be amplified by President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric and policies toward immigrants, Theriault said. 

Alice Yi, the president of the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association in Austin, has personally seen the effects of this.

During a voter registration event for Austin’s March for Science in April 2017, Yi said a group of white nationalists with leather jackets and motorcycles yelled, “You don’t belong here. Go back to your country,” at her and three other Chinese women.

“Racial discrimination was always there, but not openly expressed because people felt embarrassed or felt scared to express it,” Yi said. “Now, they don’t care.”

The Asian-American population growth in Travis County has increased at a rapid rate, becoming the fastest-growing population in Austin, Yi said. Asians are also expected to be the largest immigrant group in the U.S., surpassing Hispanics in 2055, according to Pew Research Center.

With the growing population and turnout, Yi said both Democratic and Republican groups have reached out to her to try to sway Asian-American groups.

“Even two years ago, nobody reached out to us to ask us for help in phone banking, door knocking,” Yi said. “But this year, they noticed the difference we can make. This year, it’s different.”

Asian-Americans are also making strides to improve their representation in Texas politics. 

This year, Filipina Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones is challenging incumbent Republican Congressman Will Hurd for Texas’ 23rd Congressional District. Sri Preston Kulkarni, a UT alumnus, is also running against Republican incumbent Pete Olson in the 22nd Congressional District.

“People told me, ‘It’s just a waste of time. It won’t do anything,’” Kulkarni said. “Well, that waste of time resulted in a 12-fold increase in Asian turnout this year.”

Kulkarni is appealing directly to the Asian-American community by actively communicating and canvassing with religious and cultural organizations. The campaign has held phone banks in 13 languages to reach out to different ethnicity groups, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian and Koreans, since 35 percent of the district speaks a language other than English, Kulkarni said.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric against Asians inspired him to get more of these potential voters to the polls, Kulkarni said.

“Politicians are whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment and fear and hostility,” Kulkarni said. “Right now, we’re turning it on its head and (getting) more immigrants involved in the political process.”

There are over 82,000 registered Asian voters in District 22, Kulkarni said. If they all show up to vote, it could be the first election ever decided by the Asian vote in this district.

“Whatever happens … I’m going to be very proud of the effort we made,” Kulkarni said. “But clearly, if we’re successful, it’s going to have a dramatic effect with ripples throughout the country.”

Tran said after her parents got naturalized, they voted for the first time in the 2008 Presidential election and made an effort to emphasize the importance of voting. 

Tran is now working for UT alumna and state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, and is co-director of political engagement for UT’s Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective. Through the collective, Tran promotes social justice and community building among Asian-Americans on campus through its workshops, events and guest speakers.

Tran said she’s seen a lot of excitement from the young Asian-American voters during this election cycle, but she said they still have to show up to the polls.

“It’s important for us to show up at the polls so that major political parties know that they have to cater to our interests,” Tran said. “The more we show up, the more we get what we want.”