Asian American voter turnout expected to increase this year
A recent study shows the Asian voter bloc in Illinois is largely untapped by both Democrats and Republicans.
That’s despite the population being the fastest growing minority group in the state. With new language access at the polls and the creation of an Asian American caucus, organizers hope to see a record turnout this year and eventually a greater change in civic engagement.
Khargbir Singh was 19 when his family moved to suburban Palatine seven years ago. He said it wasn’t too difficult transitioning into American life, but he calls that Indian teenager a wannabe thug.
"I tried everything. I tried smoking, drinking, going to clubs, flirting with girls, you know. So like, I wanted something new, something good for my life," he explained.
Now, he’s 26 and serious about his future. When he isn’t studying for his medical office administration degree, he’s working part time at Wal-Mart.
Singh said getting his citizenship last year wasn’t a big deal, but the one thing he really looked forward to was voting. Tomorrow will be his first election, and he won’t be alone.
Asians make up less than five percent of the Illinois population in the 2010 census, but the group is the fastest growing. It's up by 39 percent since 2000. Indians make up the largest group of the Asian population in the state.
But Asians can still feel marginalized in Illinois.
I met Singh one evening after class at Harper College.
"I’m the only student in the whole college like this," he said.
And by this he means he sticks out with a full beard and turban. A couple of years ago, Singh decided to be a devout Sikh. He said that was a harder adjustment than being the new guy in a new country.
It was an identity that was suddenly in the public eye after the mass shooting at a Sikh temple in a Milwaukee suburb earlier this year. He said he appreciated the support that came from lawmakers after the tragedy.
"Six people killed, all American flags raised to half for six days," he said.
It’s something he thinks about as he prepares to cast his first ever ballot.
"Going to the polls is a way that we can exercise our vote and show our opinion about this type of harmful rhetoric that directly affects our community and makes a lot of people uncomfortable and unsafe," said Ami Gandhi, executive director of the South Asian American Policy Research Institute in Chicago.
She said those in the community take note when elected leaders show their support for South Asians -- but they also notice the opposite, like anti-Muslim rhetoric.
"We have a lot of potential to make a positive contribution in civic life, but we need to leverage that," she said.
Federal guidelines now require Cook County and Chicago to offer Indian language assistance at polling places. That includes Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati.
"Some people are surprised to learn that every citizen has the right to vote regardless of whether they’re comfortable in English. And limited English proficiency has been a growing concern for South Asian Americans in the Chicago area," Gandhi said.
That includes language assistance for basic social services.
Turnout for Spanish and Chinese speaking voters increased after language assistance was provided for those communities.
Gandhi said she hopes to see the same trend for Indian voters this election.
Asian American voter registration grew by 53 percent in Illinois between 2000 and 2008. And this year in Cook County, organizers expect a higher turnout.
Gandhi said the newly formed Asian American caucus in Illinois could also push more people to the polls.
State Representative Daniel Biss (D-Skokie) is a member of the caucus. His district is about 16 percent Asian.
"If you look at just generic population size, today, you’d expect given the 5 percent of Illinois which is Asian, you’d expect maybe 8 or so Asian Americans to be in the legislature today. Instead, there has never been one," he said.
That means there’s not a single Asian in the Asian American caucus. Biss said the lack of representation is problematic.
"For example, there existed until this year, an African-American employment plan in the state government where we just tracked employment of African-Americans and make sure there’s adequate opportunity for African Americans to rise in the ranks of state government," he explained.
And the same thing existed for Latinos, but nothing for the Asian community.
"Look we’re not Asian ourselves. All we can be is a conduit, but at least we label ourselves so that the community knows who to come to," he said.
For Khargbir Singh, his main concern is the economy and what elected officials at all levels are going to do about it.
"I just want them to put the focus on the jobs," he said.
Singh hopes to get a full time job that isn’t at Wal-Mart after he graduates.
Another concern is Singh’s wife who he married earlier this year. He expects her to move from India to Illinois by next year if all goes according to plan.
He also wants elected leaders to pay attention to language access.
"What about the American citizens who can’t speak English? They can’t get jobs," he said.
While there might not be any Asian Americans in the statehouse, on a national scale, there are 36 Asian Americans running for Congress this year. That’s more than ever before.
At the city level, Chicago saw its first Asian American council member with 47th ward Alderman Ameya Pawar elected in 2010.
Ami Gandhi said it was refreshing to have a representative who knew first hand the concerns of South Asians.
She pointed to Pawar’s anti-hate resolution that condemns violent attacks and hate against minorities.
"That was an inspiring example for what it means for an elected official to understand the concerns of the community," she said.
Gandhi said it would be good to see more of that, Asian Americans running for office. But she said there are more important things right now.
"South Asian Americans are looking for more accountability from elected officials. Whether the elected officials themselves are of our background or not, it doesn’t matter," she said.
What does matter, she said, is that those officials are working to understand the community and address its needs.
Gandhi said it starts with the ballot box.