By Madison Foote
Some of my fondest childhood memories are related to voting.
Every election night, the minute my mom returned home from work, she would jump back in the car with my dad, sister and me to head to our nearest polling location, the elementary school just outside our neighborhood. Once inside, my sister and I would split up to accompany one of our parents inside the voting booths and watch them fill out their ballots. (Back in the days of hole-punch ballots, my dad even tried to let my sister punch a hole for him, before a poll worker quickly stopped him.) The four of us would then watch the ballots be fed into the machines and walk out of the school gymnasium proudly wearing “I VOTED” stickers. (My sister and I would receive honorary ones).
Recently, I realized that for our family, this was a multi-generational tradition. My mom grew up visiting the polls every election with her parents, naturalized American citizens who’d immigrated here from the Philippines. My grandparents’ insistence that voting was a family event was so ingrained in her mind, she made sure to take my sister and me to the polls decades later.
As a third-generation Filipino American, I didn’t realize the rose-colored glasses through which I viewed voting—assuming it was something all other American families did together—until I studied Asian American history in college. There, I learned that Asian American voter turnout has remained low for decades, despite our community becoming the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S. in the 50 years since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Only 42% of Asian American eligible voters voted in the 2018 midterms and only 49% voted in the 2016 general election.
Of the many reasons Asians immigrate to the United States, the promise of American democracy can be a big one. After experiencing growing corruption within the Philippine government, my grandparents chose to move here in 1967, and they eventually became naturalized citizens, just like most of the Asian American eligible voters today. Even the other reasons people choose to immigrate here—such as job and education opportunities and family reunification—are all greatly affected by our elected officials. And yet, Asian Americans still don’t show up to the polls.
Several barriers contribute to our low voter turnout, such as a lack of access to ballots in Asian languages, unfamiliarity with the American electoral process, and political campaigns failing to invest the time or money to reach out to Asian American voters. Additionally, Asian Americans are expected to assimilate and keep our heads down, never speaking out about social and political issues, thanks to decades of the model minority myth’s influence on our culture. Unfortunately, many Asian Americans adhere to these expectations, believing it’s the only way to succeed here.
So, it is up to us—the second, third, fourth generation Asian Americans and beyond—to commit to convincing all eligible members of our families to vote (and to vote ourselves when we’re old enough). Now, more than ever, the opportunities and security for which our families immigrated are at stake, along with our democracy.
Today, I live with my grandma. Decades ago, she brought my mom to the polls; this year, she was uncertain about voting because of her age, the dangers of voting in-person during the pandemic, and unfamiliarity with the vote-by-mail process. Because I’m here with her, I’ve persuaded her to vote again and am helping her fill out her ballot. Though voting may look different now, we are continuing the family tradition.
Madison Foote is a team leader intern with Students for Justice and a graduate of Loyola Marymount University, where she minored in Asian-Pacific American studies.