WASHINGTON – Asian Americans are the country's second fastest-growing minority behind Hispanics. But unlike Latinos, they have virtually no national political clout.
Eager to change that, activists and political leaders are relying on tried-and-true methods like voter registration drives and educational efforts to get more people to the polls.
Yet when it comes to courting Asian voters, political parties appear to be more influenced by some simple math, courtesy of the Census Bureau:
— There were more than 9 million Asians in the United States of voting age in July 2003, up 1 million from three years earlier. Among minorities though, Asians lag behind the 26.3 million Hispanics and 25.7 million blacks of voting age.
— People of Asian-Pacific Islander background comprised just 2 percent of voters in the 2000 election, compared with 10 percent for blacks and 5 percent for Hispanics.
— Nationally, Asians represent just 4 percent of the U.S. population, and there is a large immigrant segment in the United States who aren't citizens and therefore can't vote.
"Asian votes should be courted, not taken for granted," pleads Cao K. O, executive director of the Asian American Federation (search) in New York.
"At the same time, politicians and the political parties don't know how to court the Asian vote and many in the community do not know enough about the political process," he says. "There's no easy answer."
David Lee of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee (search) in San Francisco calls it a cycle that "feeds into itself." Parties historically haven't sought Asians' vote and spend little money to get them registered.
Census data shows the nation's Asian population rose 12.6 percent between 2000 and 2003, behind only the 13 percent increase among Latinos. Hispanics tend to lean Democratic though their votes are increasingly being targeted by Republicans.
But deciphering how Asians vote can be tricky given the lack of detailed study in the area, says political scientist Paul Watanabe at the University of Massachusetts. Exit polling in 2000 found 55 percent of Asians backing Democrat Al Gore and 44 percent for President Bush. Watanabe cautions against reading too much into such figures because data on Asians are often based on interviews with a small number of voters.
Drawing on rough estimates, Lee, O and others say there appear to be a roughly equal number of Asians registered as Democrat or Republican, plus a large contingent of independents. In theory, that means Asians could be pivotal in deciding a tight presidential campaign.
Yet another factor that may be affecting the influence of Asians is that the states in which they constitute the largest shares of the population, such as Hawaii, California and New York, aren't considered toss-ups for the election.
Of those states generally considered battlegrounds, Oregon, Nevada and Washington have the largest Asian population, though they still make up no more than 6 percent of the state's total population in each case.
Several nonpartisan groups have targeted those battleground states to get more Asians registered to vote.
But the efforts can also be stunted by the large number of different languages among those Asians who speak something other than English. That means more money to pay for education efforts or registration drives because ads and materials have to be printed in many languages.
"It can be very costly, very quickly," Lee says.
S.B. Woo, a former Democratic lieutenant governor of Delaware, heads a group called the "80-20 Initiative" that hopes to garner 80 percent of the Asian vote nationally this fall behind one presidential candidate, regardless of the party.
Woo says that would transform Asians into a critical national voting bloc.
Watanabe is critical of the strategy. Efforts should "principally be concentrated at the local level than attempting to influence politics at the presidential level, where Asian Americans because of their numbers have the least decisive impact."
Counters Woo, who is now an independent: "You play the hand you are dealt with."
"To have one minority ignored by the political establishment is not healthy."