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When people think of voter suppression, Asian Americans aren’t typically the first ethnic group that comes to mind. But similar to other groups of color, they encounter suppressive tactics at polling stations all around the country. In 2018, Asian Americans were considered the fastest growing major ethnic group in the country. But since the Asian community is a Democratic-leaning voting bloc, the voting process isn’t always a smooth ride.

“Asian Americans are often stereotyped as a model minority and therefore ignored when discussing disenfranchisement in communities of color,” said Terry Ao Minnis, the senior director of Census and voting programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “But the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is incredibly diverse, comprising nearly 50 different ethnicities, more than 100 languages, and are at all levels of the economic scale. We also live in diverse communities, so any tactics designed to suppress the vote of communities of color will impact Asian Americans. Those issues like voter suppression that affect our fellow communities of color affect us just as much.”

Many Asian Americans experience hours-long wait times at the polls. Those who have limited English proficiency—about one-third of the Asian American population—are also forced to navigate language barriers with minimal assistance, which limits the amount of engagement they can have in the democratic process. Although the Voting Rights Act requires some jurisdictions to provide language assistance at polling places, only 27 are required to provide language assistance for even one Asian language. In Ohio in 2017, countless Asian Americans were left off the voter rolls due to difficulty in understanding the mailings.

Leaders from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) have been working to deconstruct voting barriers within their community for years. The organization’s co-founder and executive director, Margaret Fung, has been a leading voice for Asian American voting rights. In 1992, Fung testified to Congress to expand the language assistance provisions listed in the Voting Rights Act. Then, in 2006, she testified to support the reauthorization of the provisions.

“I have seen firsthand how Asian American women and women of color have been leading the charge in fighting for voting rights, whether as attorneys, community organizers, or advocates,” said Patricia Yan, a staff attorney for AALDEF. “In just the past year, I have worked with passionate and talented women of color who have litigated against voter purge efforts, led community outreach to increase awareness and understanding of the census—and its connection to voting rights and voter suppression—and testified at public hearings about the need for compliance with federal voting laws during the next round of redistricting.”

Though language barriers have proven to be a major obstacle for Asian Americans at the polls, organizers say redistricting has become one of the most effective and long-lasting tactics to disenfranchise entire communities.

“[Redistricting] has been done to Asian American communities across the country, resulting in a very low number of Asian American elected officials compared to the population, as well as elected officials not being responsive to the Asian American community,” said Jerry Vattamala, director of the democracy program at AALDEF. “Many Americans are unaware or unfamiliar with the redistricting process, and it is challenging for us to educate and advocate for the community concerning this complicated and intricate process.”

Even as Asian American communities face voter suppression, leaders from those communities are seeking and winning elected office in increasing numbers. In the 2018 midterm election, 70% of Asian American candidates won their campaigns for state legislative office. That same year in the U.S., seven Asian American and Pacific Islander women held congressional seats,  44 were state legislators, and two were mayor of their cities. Though those numbers are relatively low in comparison to other ethnic groups, it’s continuing to grow as more Asian women begin to appear on the national stage.

“We were heartened to see two female Asian American and Pacific Islander presidential candidates earlier in the race,” said Ao Minnis. “As the Asian American population grows, I have no doubt we will see more Asian American women playing pivotal roles in voting rights from the local to the national levels in politics. Perhaps one day eventually seeing an Asian American woman as President of the United States.”

Carolyn Copeland

Carolyn Copeland is a staff reporter and copy editor at Prism. She covers racial justice and culture. Follow her on Twitter @Carolyn_Copes.