Asian Americans in North Carolina: The overlooked swing vote?

Asian Americans in North Carolina: The overlooked swing vote?


For the past decade, while the population of North Carolina has been rapidly growing and changing, the face of the immigrant population has mostly been of people of Hispanic descent. It is surprising, therefore, to learn that Asian Americans have actually been the fastest-growing racial minority group in the state. (Hispanics/Latinos grew faster in North Carolina, classified as an ethnic group by the U.S. Census.)

Between 2000 and 2010, the Asian American population in North Carolina grew by 85 percent, based on a new report put out by Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), a civil and human rights advocacy group. Despite the large growth in the population, neither the news media nor political candidates have focused on the tremendous impact this demographic could have on elections. The problem, as highlighted by this report, seems to be a lack of knowledge and understanding of Asian Americans. If candidates took the time to get to know this population, they would learn that Asian Americans are a group with several unique characteristics which could make them the swing vote in upcoming elections. 

First, despite having the lowest voter registration numbers of any minority group, the turnout of Asian American voters in elections is comparable to other minority groups. In a presidential election, only 59 percent of North Carolina Asian Americans voters may be registered, but of that number, 80 percent will go to the polls. The community of Asian American registered voters clearly has a strong sense of civic duty and interest in political engagement. Within the last decade, the number of registered Asian American voters nationally has increased, on average, by 600,000 per midterm election cycle. Due to the high percentage of voter turnout, registering even a small percentage of currently unregistered Asian American voters could alter the balance of power in North Carolina in a presidential or midterm election year.

Second, this population spans the spectrum on education and economic status. The AAJC report, part of an aptly named series, “A Community of Contrasts,” highlights the inaccurate stereotype that all Asian Americans are wealthy and highly educated. The report found that while some Asian American have PhDs and MDs, many are less likely than white Americans to have a high school degree. It also emphasized the wide range of income levels within the community. Some Asian Americans are business owners creating thousands of jobs and generating billions of dollars in annual revenue, while others have been out of a job for over a year. The report showed that the number of unemployed Asian Americans has increased dramatically throughout the South, and that some Asian American ethnic groups have poverty rates comparable to those of Latinos and African Americans. Based on the educational and economic diversity within the community, Asian Americans have broad interests in election issues ranging from health care — which Asian Americans in the South are less likely to have than white Americans — to taxes, to gun control. The takeaway for candidates should be that Asian Americans are a prime demographic to be targeted by both North Carolina Democrats and Republicans and could swing the vote in either direction. 

Third, Asian Americans tend not to identify with a political party. An AAJC pre-election poll showed that only 54 percent of registered Asian Americans voters are affiliated with a political party: 37 percent are registered Democrats and 17 percent are registered Republicans. That means that almost half of registered Asian American voters have not aligned themselves with a political party. In fact, Asian Americans are three to four times more likely than the general public to be undecided before an election. The Asian American vote is up for grabs, still open on the issues dominating an election, and persuasion addressed to Asian American constituents could draw votes to either political party. 

Given the characteristics of this group, it is confounding that this population continues to remain invisible to politicians. Candidates from both sides of the aisle should be making inroads with this community,” said Mee Moua, president and executive director of AJJC, “yet, most Asian Americans have yet-to-be contacted by either political party. The polling results found that 66 percent of Asian Americans haven’t heard from Democrats and 74 percent haven’t heard from Republicans.” Not surprisingly, the poll also found that most Asian Americans feel their public officials don’t care about them. 

Where politicians have taken the time to get to know the Asian American population, the results have been dramatic. In Bob McDonnell’s 2009 campaign for Virginia Governor, he placed radio and TV ads on Asian language networks, created literature in multiple Asian languages and spoke in areas with high Asian populations. He ended up winning in the epicenter of Virginia’s Asian American population, Fairfax County, a district rarely won by a Republican. 

Whether North Carolina politicians decide to learn about and target this demographic remains to be seen. What is certain though is that the Asian American community will continue to grow and will continue to become a larger and less easily ignored slice of the electorate. 

Election Day is November 4th and early voting has already started in North Carolina! Help get the word out to Asian Americans to vote in the midterm election and ensure #AAPIVoices are heard!

Chavi Khanna Koneru is an attorney living in Raleigh.