May 15, 2024

AAPI Voters and Closing the Registration Gap


This month, the Responsive Gov team is celebrating AAPI Heritage Month and honoring the many contributions that AAPI communities have made throughout our country’s history. 

For too long, Asian Americans have been chronically underrepresented in American government, making up less than 1% of elected officials despite being over 6% of the population. As voters, AAPI communities historically have been discriminated against, underestimated, or oversimplified, treated as a demographic monolith rather than a diverse and culturally rich population with varying needs and political priorities. In fact, Asian Americans weren’t granted the right to naturalize and become American citizens, and therefore vote, until passage of the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952.

But in recent years, a rapidly growing number of AAPI voters have been making their voices heard at the ballot box, and making a profound impact on election results in the process.  Asian Americans are the fastest growing population in the United States. According to APIA Vote, the U.S. AAPI population grew by 81% from 2000 to 2019 and is projected to pass 35 million by 2060. These voters can trace their ancestry to more than 20 different countries, speak dozens of different languages (a factor that can play a big part in voter participation), and have a wide range of unique cultural and religious practices. 

With this rise in numbers, we’ve seen incredible growth in AAPI political power. Recent Pew data found Asian Americans are the fastest-growing group of eligible voters in the U.S. in the past two decades and since 2020. In fact, they’ve grown by 2 million eligible voters in just the past four years, and about 15 million AAPI voters are projected to be eligible to vote in this year’s federal election, a 15% increase from 2020. With some critical states decided by just tens of thousands of votes in the 2020 federal election, these numbers are significant. Key swing states have seen their AAPI populations more than double since the year 2000: Nevada’s AAPI population increased by 167%; Arizona’s by 157%; and North Carolina’s by 154%. 

And yet, as with many communities of color in the United States, AAPI communities still face significant hurdles to making their voices heard, from new restrictive voting laws in some states to language barriers that inhibit registering and/or casting a ballot. 

California, which is home to 31% of the entire U.S. Asian electorate, is one state where we’ve seen an enduring voter registration gap for AAPI voters — and where our team at Responsive Gov has been hard at work with partners to close that gap. There are 4.7 million Californians who are eligible but unregistered to vote, a group disproportionately made up of Asian American, Black, and Latino citizens. This is the largest population of eligible unregistered voters in the country. For context, if this group had their own state, it would be the 25th largest state in the country. Of that group, nearly half a million (477,429) are unregistered but eligible AAPI voters. 

Enter S.B. 299. Along with partners and advocates in California, the Responsive Gov team worked to get this bill introduced in February of 2023 and has been pushing for its passage ever since. S.B. 299 would upgrade California’s existing voter registration system to a Secure AVR program (SAVR), automatically registering a large percentage of the remaining 4.7 million eligible but unregistered Californians. The bill passed the Senate in 2023, but remains pending in the Assembly. You can learn more about SAVR here

At Responsive Gov, we are dedicated to ensuring that every state’s elections are as accessible, inclusive, and efficient as possible, so that our democracy is truly representative. In California and across the country, SAVR is a policy that helps us get there—especially when it comes to registering eligible voters of color. We eagerly await action on S.B. 299 in the California Legislature this year. 

Increasing language access is also critical when it comes to improving representation for AAPI communities. The Brennan Center cites a noteworthy California example of this: “[A]fter a settlement with the federal government required a California county to improve its language access policies in elections, registration rates increased by more than 20 percent for Filipino Americans and Latinos and 40 percent for Vietnamese Americans.”

It’s important to note that providing robust language access to voters requires resources. One way to improve language access is to ensure that election officials across the country have sufficient, reliable funding so they can run smooth and accessible elections — another issue our team at Responsive Gov advocates for day in and day out.

It’s simple: our government is strongest, at every level, when all of us have a say in the decisions that matter. This AAPI Heritage Month and year-round, Responsive Gov is committed to fighting for smart, effective reforms that give every community a voice in our elections, and ensure that our leaders truly represent the full diversity of the American people.