Asian Pacific American Political Participation and Representation in Elective Office

CRS Report for Congress
Asian Pacific American Political Participation
and Representation in Elective Office
Kevin Coleman
Analyst in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
As one of the fastest growing segments of the population, Asian Pacific Americans
(APAs) have seemed to be on the verge of greater political activity. As yet, the steep
increase in the Asian Pacific American population during the last 35 years has not
resulted in a corresponding increase in the level of political participation. Voter turnout
for Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) has lagged behind that of whites and blacks, while
Asian Pacific American and Hispanic turnout rates are similar (45% for Hispanics in the
2000 election compared with 43% for Asian Pacific Americans; data for 2004 are not
yet available from the Census Bureau).
Asian immigration to the United States began in the 1840s, and continued throughout
the settlement of western and Pacific coast states. Most early immigrants were Chinese
laborers whose destinations were the railroads and the mining camps that transformed the
western frontier. But restrictive immigration policies and native hostility toward Asian
workers (sometimes erupting into riots) followed the settlement period, resulting in self-
segregation and the formation of “Chinatowns” in many cities. The adoption of the
Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 (which barred entry to contract laborers for 10 years; 22
Stat. 58) and the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan in 1908 (whereby Japan agreed to
withhold passports from laborers bound for the U.S.) virtually closed off immigration
from Asia.
New immigration laws were adopted in 1952 and 1965 that modified earlier
restrictions on immigration from Asia. The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 (66 Stat. 163)
eased some restrictions on gaining citizenship and abolished the category called “alien,
ineligible for citizenship,” which applied to many immigrants from Asia. In 1965, the
Immigration and Nationality Act (79 Stat. 911) was amended to eliminate the national
quota system and establish new limits of approximately 20,000 immigrants from each
Asian country. After that, a renewed flow of immigrants began arriving from Asian
countries. Whereas most earlier Asian immigrants arrived from China and Japan, the

1965 changes to immigration laws resulted in a sharp increase in the number of

Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress

immigrants from India, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and, to a lesser extent, from
Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Pakistan.
Table 1. Asian Immigration to the United States, 1971-1990
Place of Origin1971-19801981-1990Total
China 203,522 474,103 677,625
Hong Kong47,50163,016110,517
J a pan 47,914 43,248 91,162
Philippines 360,216 494,971 855,187
K orea 271,463 338,872 610,335
India 176,716 261,841 438,557
V i etnam 178,681 401,419 580,100
Cambodia 8,426 116,571 124,997
Laos 22,566 145,444 168,010
T hailand 44,055 64,437 108,492
Paki stan 31,247 61,364 92,611
Source: Herbert R. Barringer, Robert W. Gardner, and Michael J. Levin, Asians and Pacific Islanders in
the United States (New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 1993), pp. 25-26.
Because the study of Asian Pacific American electoral involvement is a recent
phenomenon, little is known about APA political participation historically. Asian
immigrants were subject to official and unofficial hostility after they began arriving in the
1840s (anti-Asian immigration laws, discrimination and mob violence, barriers to
citizenship, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II). Such
attitudes may have discouraged political activity. But the social and political dynamic has
changed within the Asian Pacific American population, due in part to recent immigration
patterns. In 1960, Asian Pacific Americans numbered 900,000 (0.06% of the total
population). By 2000, the APA population exceeded eleven million (4.2% of the
population), making it one of the fastest-growing populations in the country. Because of
this dramatic change in the size and composition of the population, political observers
within and outside the APA community anticipate greater political activity.
Voter Turnout
National voter turnout rates for Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) have been available
only since 1992, and these data suggest that their participation is lower than that of whites
and blacks and similar to Hispanic turnout (see Table 2, below). Observers offer a
number of reasons to explain the comparatively low rates of voting participation: 1) nearly
70% of Asian Pacific Americans were born outside the U.S., and those who are not yet
citizens are not eligible to vote; 2) for some immigrants, a fear or distrust of political
involvement carried over from their home countries may inhibit participation; 3)
immigrants who do not speak or understand English, or do so only with difficulty, may

be discouraged by an “official” activity such as registering and voting; 4) the APA
population is comparatively young (APA median age is 30 years compared to a national
median of 33 years), and turnout is traditionally lowest among younger voters.1
Table 2. Voter Participation Rates in Presidential Elections,
1992, 1996, and 2000 by Race and Hispanic Origin
Asian 27.3% 45.0% 43.3%
White 63.6% 60.7% 61.8%
Latino 28.9% 44.3% 45.1%
Black 54.0% 53.0% 56.8%
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 1996,”
[], visited March 3, 1998, and “Voting and
Registration in the Election of November 2000,” P20-542, issued February 2002, p.5.
Asian Pacific American voters accounted for one percent of all voters in 1992 and
1996 and two percent of voters in 2000, compared with Latinos, for example, who
accounted for 4% to 7%. In California, APAs were about 5% of the electorate in recent
elections, according to exit polls from the Los Angeles Times, but turnout spiked in 2004
when APAs accounted for 9% of all voters. In comparison, Latinos accounted for
between 8% and 14% of voters in statewide elections since 1994.2
Despite the potential difficulties immigrants face with respect to voting, a number
of factors could work to offset the low rate of participation among APAs. A 1996 national
study by the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA found that more than 80% of Asian
immigrants become citizens, a step necessary to meet the citizenship requirement for
voter registration. A poll of San Francisco’s ethnic groups found a similarly high rate of
naturalization for APAs (76%), which favorably compared with a 61% naturalization rate
for Hispanics in the city.3 Once registered, APA voters “are among the most likely voters4
to go to the polls on election day,” according to the UCLA study. For example, a study
by the Chinese American Voters Education Committee reported that 61% of APA voters
turned out in San Francisco in the November 1996 election, compared with a 59% turnout
rate for all voters in the city.5

1 U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, We the Asian Americans, WE-3,
September, 1993. p. 3.
2 Los Angeles Times exit polls, 1994 through 2004.
3 Ibid.
4 Associated Press, Migration News Clip, “Study Tracks Asian Immigrants,” available at
[], visited Dec. 10, 1996.
5 Ramon G. McLeod, “More Asians Turning Out, Voting in S.F. : Record Levels Contrast With
Past Uninvolvement,” [], visited April 23, 1998.

As for language problems with respect to voting, Section 203 of the Voting Rights
Act provides that bilingual voting materials are available in certain communities for
voters who experience difficulty with English. Section 203 applies to communities where
members of a language minority with limited English abilities are 5% of voting age
citizens, or the community includes 10,000 members of a language minority who have
difficulty with English, and the illiteracy rate for the group exceeds the national illiteracy
rate. In California, four counties offer voting materials in one or more languages other
than English (Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, and Vietnamese); in two New York counties
and in the borough of Queens, voting materials in Chinese are available; and in Hawaii,
voting materials are available in the city and county of Honolulu in Japanese and Tagalog
and, in two other counties, in Tagalog only.
Voting Patterns in Elections
Partisan voting patterns are mixed for Asian Pacific American voters, according to
exit polls for Presidential and U.S. House elections since 1990. Asian Pacific American
voters cast 55% of their votes for President Bush in 1992, a plurality (48%) of their votes
for Senator Dole in 1996 (Governor Clinton won 31% of the vote in 1992 and, as the
incumbent President, won 43% of the vote in 1996), and 62% of their votes for Vice
President Gore in 2000. In 2004, 64% cast their votes for Senator Kerry. In contrast, APA
voters cast a majority of their ballots for Democratic candidates in U.S. House elections
in 1990, 1994, and 1998, while a majority voted for Republican candidates in House
elections in 1992 and 1996. The results from the 1996 and 1998 House elections illustrate
the shifting electoral tendencies of APA voters: a solid majority (56%) voted Republican
in 1996 and a slightly higher percentage (57%) voted Democratic in 1998.
Table 3. Voting Patterns in Presidential Elections,
1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 by Race and Hispanic Origin
Asian White Bl ack Latino

2004Bush (R)34%57%14%45%

Kerry (D)64%42%86%54%

2000Bush (R)37%54%9%38%

Gore (D)62%43%90%61%
Nader 1%3%1%1%

1996Clinton (D)43%43%84%72%

Dole (R)48%46%12% 21%
Perot (I) 8% 9% 4% 6%

1992Clinton (D)31%39%83%61%

Bush (R)55%40%10%25%
Perot (I)15%20% 7%14%
Source: Marjorie Connelly, “Portrait of the Electorate,” The New York Times, Nov. 10, 1996, p. 28; 2000
data are fromThe National Electorate,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 9, 2000 and 2004 data are from the
Times national exit poll results,” Nov. 4, 2004.

Voting patterns in California, where nearly 40% of Asian Pacific Americans live,
tend to mirror national voting trends for APAs. According to Los Angeles Times exit
polls, APA voters cast a majority of their ballots for the Democratic candidate in six of
seven elections for U.S. Senator since 1986. In gubernatorial elections, APA voters cast
a majority of their votes for the Democratic candidate three times and for the Republican
candidate once.
Table 4. Asian Pacific American Voting Trends in U. S. Senatorial
and Gubernatorial Elections in California, 1986-2004
U.S. SenatorGovernor
Year Dem Rep Dem Rep

2004 66% 29% n.a. n.a.

2002 n.a. n.a. 54% 37%

2000 64% 33% n.a. n.a.

1998 48% 51% 65% 35%

1994 52% 40% 50% 46%

1992special election62%36%n.a.n.a.

general election 51%44%n.a.n.a.

1990 n.a. n.a. 52% 44%

1988 51% 47% n.a. n.a.

1986 56% 41% 39% 59%

Source: 1988 and 1986 figures are from the Field Institute, Voting in the 1998 General Election, Dec.
1988, and A Survey of 1986 General Election Voters, Dec. 1986; 1990 through 2000 statistics are from
various issues of the Los Angeles Times exit polls: Nov. 4, 2004, Nov. 7, 2002, Nov. 9, 2000, Nov. 3, 1998,
Nov. 10, 1994, Nov. 5, 1992, and Nov. 7, 1990.
Representation Among Elected Officials
The 109th Congress includes eight Asian Pacific Americans: two Senators and five
Members of the House of Representatives. There are two members from Hawaii, two
from California, and one each from Oregon, Louisiana, and Virginia, as well as one
Delegate from American Samoa. Historically, there have been 34 APA Members of
Congress, beginning with Dalip Singh Saund, who was elected in 1956 to the 85th
Congress from California.6

6 This number includes 13 Resident Commissioners from the Philippine Islands who were elected
to Congress between 1907 and 1946. For further information, see CRS Report 97-398 GOV,
Asian Pacific Americans in the United States Congress, by Lorraine Tong.

Table 5. Asian Pacific American Members and Delegates
in the 109th Congress
NameStateChamberYears of service
Daniel Akaka, DHawaiiSenate1990-present
(House, 1977-90)
Eni F. H. Faleomavagea, DAmerican SamoaHouse1989-present
Michael M. Honda, DCaliforniaHouse2001-present
Daniel K. Inouye, DHawaiiSenate1963-present
Bobby Jindal, RLouisianaHouse2005-present
Robert T. Matsui, DCalifornia, 5thHouse1979-present
Robert C. Scott, D7VirginiaHouse1993-present
David Wu, DOregon, 1stHouse1999-present
Source: CRS Report 97-938 GOV, Asian Pacific Americans in the United States Congress, by Lorraine
Tong and the CQ Guide to the New Congress, []
mo n20041103-3minorities.pdf.
At the state level, Gary Locke was elected governor of Washington in 1996,
becoming the first Asian Pacific American elected to the office outside Hawaii, and the
first Chinese American governor as well. Ben Cayetano became the first Filipino
American state chief executive when he was elected governor of Hawaii in 1994.

7 Rep. Scott is African American with Filipino heritage.