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Driven by Key Issues, Asian Youth Increased their Political Participation

Our 2020 post-election youth poll showed that young Asian Americans were especially concerned about racial injustice and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the 2020 elections, CIRCLE’s youth survey found signs of substantial civic participation among Asian American youth. Young Asian Americans reported that they were working to register their peers and encourage them to vote, and a majority expressed that they felt they had the power to make change. That youth energy appears to have translated into electoral participation: according to the Census Bureau Current Population Survey Registration and Voting Supplement, November 2020 data, Asian American voter turnout (for all ages) reached a historic high of 60% in the 2020 presidential election, and preliminary analyses of the Asian American vote suggest that Asian American voters had increased voter turnout in multiple states. 

In addition, our analysis of the CIRCLE post-election poll finds that, despite lower levels of contact from political campaigns, young Asian Americans took to the ballot box to express their concerns about racism and the COVID-19 pandemic. Census data suggests that Asian American youth voter turnout increased and nearly closed the stubborn gap that has existed between their electoral participation and that of young people of other races/ethnicities.

In CIRCLE’s 2020 survey data, we also find that Asian American youth are ready to continue taking action on social and political issues: 73% of Asian American youth have talked to their friends about political issues or elections, and 30% have attended a march or demonstration about an issue they care about. 

Our top findings include:

  • According to our analysis of voter file data, 47% of eligible young Asian Americans (ages 18-29) reported voting in 2020, and Census data suggests Asian youth turnout may have increased the most of any racial/ethnic group
  • Young Asian Americans remain relatively neglected by political campaign outreach
  • Asian American youth utilized vote-by-mail and ballot drop-off voting methods more than in-person options
  • Young Asian Americans identified racism as a one of their top three issues that determined their vote for President
  • A comprehensive federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic important to young Asian Americans

About Data on Asian Americans: Although analyses of the Asian American electorate often does not distinguish Asian Americans by ethnic group, differences in educational attainment as well as income suggest that the collection and publishing of disaggregated data on Asian Americans is needed to fully understand the community’s civic participation. In addition, data on Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders is often aggregated within data on Asian American respondents under the category “Asian American and Pacific Islander” (AAPI). Due to the low numbers of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander youth respondents in our sample, we have not included them in this analysis.Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and disaggregated data on NHPI communities is needed to further understand the challenges faced by NHPI youth as well as their civic participation. The data cited in this analysis includes young people ages 18-29 who self-identify in part or exclusively as Asian American. This population does include those who identify with one or more other racial/ethnic groups. The other racial groups analyzed (white, Black, Latino) also include young people 18-29 who self-identify in part or exclusively as members of those groups, and multiracial individuals are included as members of each group with which they identified. 

About the Poll: The CIRCLE/Tisch College Post-Election Poll was a web survey fielded from November 3 to December 2, 2020 By Gallup, Inc. The survey covered adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who were eligible to vote in the United Stated in the 2020 General Election. Sample was drawn from the Gallup Panel, a probability-based panel that is representative of the U.S. adult population, and from the Dynata Panel, a non-probability panel. A total of 2,645 eligible adults completed the survey. Of the total completes, 1,138 were from the Gallup Panel (stratified panel) and 1,507 were from the Dynata (opt-in) Panel. Unless stated otherwise, for the sake of this analysis, ‘youth’ refers to those ages 18- to 29-years old. The margin of sampling error, taking into account the design effect from weighting, is ± 3.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Margins of error (MoE) for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-7.6 to 9.4 percentage points, with Asian MoE being =/-9.4 points.

Asian American Youth’s Voter Participation in 2020

In 2020, young Asian Americans narrowed the gap between themselves and young voters from other racial/ethnic groups. According to CIRCLE’s analysis of 2020 Catalist voter file data, an estimated 47% of Asian American youth voted in 2020, compared to 61% of White youth, 48% of Latino youth, and 43% of Black youth. (Note: this turnout estimate includes Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander youth as “Asian American”. The rest of this analysis is based on CIRCLE polling data which did not include Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander youth in the “Asian” category.)

Although different data sources produce different estimates, they can also enable us to examine the turnout gap between white and nonwhite youth. In addition to voter file data, the Census Current Population Survey (CPS) allows us to analyze historical trends of youth turnout by race & ethnicity. The historical trendline below, based on that Census data, highlights that youth voter turnout increased among every racial/ethnic group in 2020, but may have increased the most among Asian-American youth. (In these estimates, “Asian” also includes Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander youth.)

In their responses to our post-election poll of young voters (ages 18-29), Asian American youth respondents indicated that they took advantage of non-Election Day voting options at a higher rate than other youth. Among the Asian American youth respondents who said they voted in the November 2020 elections, nearly half (46%) of reported that they voted by mail, a much higher rate than young people of other races/ethnicities, and 21% said they dropped off their ballot at a dropbox or voting location, compared to approximately one in ten Black and Latino youth who used that voting method. Conversely, just 17% of young Asian American voters reported voting in-person on election day, while approximately 40% of Black, White, and Latino youth said they voted using this method.

That may be due, in part, to the geographic distribution of this population: Asian American youth are concentrated in the Western United States, and approximately 40% of young Asian American eligible voters resided in states that mailed ballots to all registered voters for the November 2020 election. In our pre-election survey, we found that 35% of young Asian Americans reported they had experience with voting by mail

Overlooked by Political Organizations, Asian American Youth Connect Informally

Despite their interest and engagement in the 2020 elections, Asian American youth reported lower levels of contact by political campaigns and youth organizations than other young people of color. Just 43% of  Asian American youth said they were contacted by someone on behalf of President Joe Biden’s campaign or the Democratic Party in the month leading up to November 3, 2020, lower than the 61% of Black youth, 55% of Latino youth, and 46% of white youth who said they were contacted.

This trend also applied to contact from the former President Trump’s campaign or the Republican Party: 25% of Asian American youth indicated they were contacted by a Republican outreach effort in the month before the November election, while roughly a third of Black youth and white youth, and Latino youth reported contact from Trump’s campaign or the GOP.

In addition to political parties and campaigns, community organizations often reach out to young people to encourage them to participate in elections. Our post-election poll indicates that Asian American youth were also contacted by these organizations (34%) at lower rates than Black (50%) and Latino youth (41%). About a third of white youth (35%) said they were contacted by a community organization in their area in the month leading up to the November 2020 election. 

Although they were contacted at relatively lower rates by political parties and local organizations, our survey revealed that many young Asian Americans shared conversations about elections with people close to them, like peers and relatives. About two-thirds (67%) of Asian American youth reported that other young people reached out to them about political issues or elections in 2020. 

Among all youth, friends and family were one of the most common sources of information about the election, but Asian American youth reported that was the case at a higher rate than Black and Latino youth. Just over two-thirds (69%) of Asian American youth said they heard information about the 2020 elections from family, a similar rate to white youth (71%) but much higher than Black youth (60%) and Latino youth (61%). 63% of young Asian Americans responded that they had heard information about the 2020 elections from friends or roommates, compared to 62% of white youth, 55% of Black youth and 56% of Latino youth. 

Concerned About COVID-19 and Racism—And Prepared to Take Action

Many young Asian Americans have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and their responses to our post-election poll indicate that these experiences may have played a major role in their 2020 vote. 

Approximately seven in ten (71%) Asian American youth indicated that COVID-19 has had a moderate or very significant impact on their economic situation. Recent analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics conducted by Mathematica found that Asian American youth were heavily affected by a COVID-19-related increase in unemployment in 2020. 

Asian American youth took their feelings about the pandemic to the ballot box. Two in five said “getting the country back to ‘normal’ after COVID-19” was one of the top three issues determining their choice for President. In addition, approximately three in ten (32%)  young Asian Americans said how leaders dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic was a top-three issue in determining their vote. An overwhelming majority (79%) of Asian American youth said that making a COVID-19 vaccine widely available should be a somewhat or very high priority for the next President of the United States.

In both pre- and post-election surveys roughly a third of Asian American youth ranked racism as one of the top three issues that would be influence to their vote for President, second highest of all eleven priorities to choose from, only after providing a COVID-19 vaccine. 

In other responses, young Asian Americans highlighted the salience of racial equality and emphasized action. Nearly nine in ten (87%) Asian American youth agreed or strongly agreed that it is important to correct social and economic inequalities. In addition, 85% agreed or strongly agreed that certain racial or ethnic groups have fewer chances to get ahead, higher than the 70% of White youth, 74% of Black youth, and 73% of Latino youth that said the same. 

Asian American youth also connected their concerns about racism in the United States to electoral action and their expectations for elected officials. Seven in ten young Asian Americans said that combating violence against people of color should be a priority for the President. In addition, nearly four in five (77%) Asian American youth agreed or strongly agreed that voting and elections play a role in stopping violence against people of color, higher than the 67% of white youth who said so. 

In addition to elections, Asian American youth expressed an expansive view of their role in addressing racism and other issues: 86% agreed or strongly agreed that the work to improve their communities is not limited to elections and voting every two or four years. Nearly four in five (77%) Asian American youth agreed that “people like me should participate in the political activity and decision-making of our country.” 

In our pre-election poll, 29% of Asian American youth said they had attended a march or demonstration about an issue they care about. In this post-election poll (fielded in November and December 2020) that figure remained high, at 30%, with another 24% of young Asian Americans reporting that they might do so if given the opportunity. Three in ten Asian American youth also reported that they had taken concrete action for racial justice before 2020, and 40% said they took concrete action for racial justice in 2020 though just 29% had done so before 2020. However Asian American youth trailed Black youth (55%) and Latino youth (52%) who reported taking concrete action for racial justice in 2020. 

When analyzing the concerns and attitudes voiced by Asian American youth in this post-election poll, it is important to note that this poll was fielded before the killings of Asian and Asian American women in Georgia on March 16, 2021. However, anti-Asian incidents and violence toward Asian American communities had become widely visible throughout the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020. On April 22, 2021, the U.S. Senate approved anti-hate crime legislation geared towards protecting Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

Looking Back and Marching Forward

Driven to participate by their concerns on a variety of issues such as racism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and healthcare, Asian American youth made their voices heard in the 2020 election cycle. Although they enjoy relatively lower levels of contact by political parties, young Asian Americans are hearing information about elections from friends, family members, and other young people. This peer-to-peer outreach also provides an opportunity for young Asian Americans to make a difference in their communities. Despite the diversity of languages spoken by Asian Americans, fewer than 50 counties in the U.S. are federally required to provide bilingual voting assistance under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. In our pre-election poll, Asian American youth indicated their willingness to serve as poll workers and translate resources for their communities. Peer-to-peer and intergenerational forms of outreach by Asian American youth may reduce the impacts of low levels of formal political party and campaign outreach to Asian American voters.

Some Asian American youth may also be encouraged by the increase in descriptive representation of Asian Americans in some of the nation’s highest offices. On January 20, 2021, Kamala Harris was inaugurated as the first vice president of South Asian and Asian American descent. Following the elections, Filipino American Rob Bonta was appointed as California’s Attorney General. In April 2021, Indian American Vanita Gupta was confirmed as the Associate Attorney General in the Justice Department, becoming the first woman of color to hold this position. Despite these appointments, President Joe Biden has been criticized by multiple Senators for the Presidential Cabinet’s lack of Asian American members

Due to the wide disparities in income, education, and poverty rates among different Asian ethnic groups, disaggregated data on Asian American youth is required to further understand this community and their civic engagement. As the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S., young Asian Americans are well-positioned to continue to express their views on social and political issues and create change.


Author: Peter de Guzman