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Strong Signs of Asian American Youth Engagement in 2020

Young Asian Americans have historically voted at lower rates, but our polling reveals signs of increasing civic participation

Asian Americans have been identified as the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the U.S. electorate. However, despite a rich history of youth-led activism and participation in movements such as the Delano Grape Strike, the campaign for redress of Japanese American internment, and the Third World Liberation Front, young Asian Americans’ electoral participation has not so far reached the levels of other youth. That’s led some to call Asian Americans “the ‘Next Sleeping Giant’ in American politics due to their rising population numbers and low voting rates. According to the November 2016 CPS Voting and Registration Supplement, just half (49%) of Asian Americans voted in that year’s general election, about the same rate of Latinos (48%) but trailing the voter turnout of Black (59%) and White (63%) people by wide margins.

These trends may be changing. In 2018, when an estimated 28% of youth (ages 18-29) voted in the midterm elections, self-reported voter turnout among Asian American voters ages 18-34 also increased.

Our 2020 pre-election survey of young people highlights that Asian American youth are once again ready to make their voice heard at the ballot box. We find that Asian American youth are stepping into that legacy of activism and engagement: they are participating in both movements and in politics and they believe their participation will result in change in their communities.

Our top findings include:

  • Accepting but Unenthusiastic About Biden: 78% of Asian American youth say they support Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, but 59% neither approve nor disapprove of the former Vice President as of late June 2020
  • Concerned About Climate Change, Racism, and Healthcare Access: Asian American youth named these three issues as the most influential to their vote for President in 2020, with 45% identifying climate change and the environment as one of their top three.
  • Stepping Up During the Pandemic: 69% of Asian American youth have translated health materials or resources related to COVID-19 or would do so if given the opportunity, and 25% indicated that they might be a poll worker if provided the opportunity, which may be especially key to address potential language barriers to voting for the Asian American community.

About the Poll: The first wave of the CIRCLE/Tisch College 2020 Youth Survey was fielded from May 20 to June 18, 2020. The survey covered adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who will be eligible to vote in the United Stated by the 2020 General Election. The 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 2,232 eligible adults completed the survey, which includes oversamples of 18- to 21-year-olds (N=671), Asian American youth (N=306), Black youth (N=473), Latino youth (N=559) and young Republicans (N=373). Of the total completes, 1,019 were from the Gallup Panel and 1,238 were from the Dynata Panel. Unless stated otherwise, ‘youth’ refers to those ages 18- to 29-years old. The margin of error for the poll, taking into account the design effect from weighting, is +/- 4.1 percentage points. Margins of error for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-8.1 to 11.0 percentage points.

Taking into account the design effect from weighting, the margin of error for the Asian American youth subsample is ±11.0. Although the sample is weighted, the unweighted sample has higher rates of educational attainment than the national Asian American population between the ages of 18 and 29.

Who Are Young Asian American Voters?

The Asian American electorate is far from uniform. The Asian American community is rich in ethnic diversity, and the racial categories used in data collection can often obscure educational and wealth disparities and paint Asian-American success as monolithic. Due to the diversity in experiences of Asian American youth, care must be taken to not depict Asian American civic and political engagement as invariable. For example, previous research has found nonuniformity in Asian American youth civic engagement between youth with different levels of college experience and family immigration history.

Historically concentrated on the West and East Coast, the geographic distribution of the Asian American electorate has grown more diverse. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the South, having increased 69% from 2000-2010. Two of the top ten Congressional Districts identified on our 2020 Youth Electoral Significance Index (where youth are poised to have a high impact in 2020) are the Georgia 6th and 7th, where the proportion of voting-eligible Asian Americans in the electorate is double that of the state of Georgia as a whole (Per CIRCLE analysis of the 2014-2018 American Community Survey 5 Year Estimates). Young people (ages 18-29) make up 16% of all Asian American eligible voters in Georgia (Per CIRCLE analysis of the March 2020 Current Population Survey Supplement).

Increasingly, Asian Americans have achieved success in federal elections, a trend that could lead to increased voter turnout among Asian Americans. Previous research has indicated that shared ethnicity between candidates and voters has led to increased Latino voter turnout, although further research is needed to explore this relationship between Asian American candidates and the electorate.  In 2018, the election of the 116th Congress brought the total number of Asian American legislators in the body to a record high. Down the ballot, a record number of Asian Americans ran for seats in state legislatures in 2018. The rise in prominence of American officials of Asian ancestry has continued with the selection of Senator Kamala Harris as the 2020 Democratic Vice Presidential nominee. Senator Harris is the first Asian American candidate on a major party ticket.

Asian American Youth are Paying Attention to the Election and to Government

According to CIRCLE’s 2020 pre-election survey, an overwhelming majority of Asian American youth are following the upcoming elections and believe that their participation is important. Almost nine in 10 (86%) Asian American youth responded that they are paying attention to this November’s Presidential election, eclipsing the 75% of all young people who said the same. Moreover, two in five Asian American youth reported that they had often or fairly often read or watched news about their local area in the past week.

Moreover, 80% percent of Asian American youth agree or strongly agree that young people have the power to make change, and the same number believe that the outcomes of the 2020 election will significantly impact the issues faced by their community. In addition, 59% of Asian American youth feel like they’re part of a movement whose members will vote to express their views.

Candidate Choice and Favorability

When asked who they would vote for at that moment (the poll was fielded in May and June), Asian American youth were the most likely to choose Joe Biden, with 78% of Asian American youth saying they support Biden, compared to 58% of all youth. This greater margin of support for Biden relative to all youth is complemented by lower support for President Trump and for other potential candidates. Only 10% of Asian American youth chose Trump, lower than the 24% of all youth who did so. Those who expressed a desire to vote for a different candidate other than Biden or Trump accounted for 12% of Asian American youth, as opposed to 18% of all youth.

Despite expressing the highest rate of electoral support for Joe Biden, Asian American youth did not evince high rates of approval for the former Vice President. A majority of Asian American youth responded that they neither approved nor disapproved of Joe Biden (59%), while only 20% said they approve of him. Conversely, Asian American youth had a more polarized view of President Donald Trump: although a strong majority of all youth (74%) expressed disapproval of President Trump, disapproval was highest among Asian American youth: 89%.

Asian American Youth are Engaging their Peers around the Election

Previous CIRCLE research has found that youth contacted by a political party or campaign in 2018 were more likely to say they voted in the midterm election. Many Asian American youth are reporting low-to-average levels of contact by campaigns and organizations in 2020, but there appears to be a promising level of peer-to-peer youth outreach.

About one in four (25%) of all youth we surveyed this summer report having been contacted by the Republican Party this year, and 17% of Asian American youth report Republican Party outreach. A greater proportion of Asian American youth report contact from the Democratic Party, with 42% saying they have been contacted by a Democratic candidate or party representative this year, which is close to the 44% of all youth across race/ethnicity who say they’ve been contacted by Democrats. In addition to partisan outreach, Asian American youth are also reporting contact by local organizations: 18% of Asian American youth state that they have been contacted by a youth organization, and 29% report contact from a community organization.

As with youth of other racial/ethnic groups, Asian American youth have been active in engaging their peers around the upcoming elections. 34% of Asian American youth report they have registered others to vote, and an additional 37% indicate they might do so if given the opportunity. Nearly half (46%) of young Asian Americans say they have tried to convince other young people to vote, and seventy percent of Asian American youth state that young people have reached out to them about politics or elections in the past year. This peer-to-peer outreach can be key, especially when it is centered on issues: in 2018, we witnessed the power that movements led by youth of color can have when they connect issues to electoral participation and engage their peers.

Experience with Vote By Mail but Access Barriers Persist

With the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic on in-person voter outreach and organizing, as well as concerns about the safety of going to the polls on Election Day, alternatives like online voter registration and vote by mail (VBM) are increasingly important this election cycle. As it currently stands, this year a record 76% of American voters will be eligible to vote by mail in November.

Of the youth surveyed in our poll, young Asian Americans were most likely to report having previously voted by mail: 34.5% compared to 24% of youth overall. In addition, 78% of Asian American youth said that they had seen information on how to vote by mail, and seven in ten Asian American youth indicated that they would know where to get information on how to vote by mail in the event that their state went to all-mail voting this year. This exposure and familiarity with VBM may be partially attributed to the geographic distribution of Asian Americans in the United States, as Western states such as Washington, Oregon, Utah and Colorado have previously used mail-in voting as the default method of casting a ballot. In 2018, 46% of eligible Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian youth (ages 18-29) lived in the “West” Census region which includes these states.[1] According to the March 2020 Census Current Population Survey, 40% of eligible Asian American youth live in the ten states that will mail ballots to all registered voters this fall (CA, CO, DC, HI, NJ, NV, OR, UT, VT, WA).

In addition to information obstacles, the Asian American electorate has historically faced language access barriers when participating in elections. According to the American Community Survey 5-year estimate (2013-2018), 45% of individuals ages 18-64 and 70% of those 65+ who spoke an Asian language at home were considered Limited English Proficient. (Individuals are Limited English Proficient according to the Census Bureau if they speak English less than “very well”.) Due to Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, certain jurisdictions are required to provide language minorities with bilingual voting materials. However, the most recent decision by the Director of the U.S. Census regarding which jurisdictions are subject to these language assistance previsions was made in 2016, and may not provide the necessary assistance to residents who need bilingual voting materials but do not live in an area dense with co-ethnic peers.

With an increase in requests for mail ballots and a disruption in access to polling-place interpreters due to the public health concerns caused by the coronavirus pandemic, many elderly and newly eligible Asian American citizens are at risk of not being able to participate in the electoral process due to difficulty understanding English-language election materials. Crucially, Asian American youth have expressed that they are ready and willing to address these language barriers, whether at the polls or related to the pandemic. An overwhelming majority (86%) of Asian American youth agreed that young people can do helpful things for their communities in these times, and nearly 7 in 10 (69%) reported that they have translated health materials or resources for family and neighbors, or might do so if given the opportunity. In addition, while only 6% of Asian American youth say they have served as poll workers or election judges before, an additional 25% indicated that they might do so if provided the opportunity, suggesting there is untapped potential to engage these young people in critical electoral activities.

Climate Change, Racism, and Healthcare Access Are Top Issues

Asian American youth differed from youth of other racial/ethnic groups in our poll in terms of the issues they identified as most important to their vote in the upcoming elections.

Asian American youth were most likely to select the environment and climate change as a top issue, with 45% including it in their top three. Recently, advocacy organizers have covered the rise of Asian American grassroots leadership in the movement for climate and environmental justice.

Racism was also a top issue for Asian American youth, with 36% of respondents selecting it as one of their top three issues and 13% choosing it as their single most important issue. It’s worth noting that our poll was fielded during intense national media coverage of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others, and the subsequent protests over racial injustice.

In our poll, 29% of all youth said they have attended a march or demonstration about an issue they care about this year, and that number is the same for Asian American youth. Another 37% of Asian American youth indicated that they might be willing to do so if given an opportunity. High levels of youth support for these protests suggest more potential for their participation in demonstrations, and this support is not exclusive to young members of the Asian American community. A separate Gallup panel (surveyed from June 23 to July 6, 2020) found that, after Black adults (92%), Asian adults (89%) were the racial group most likely to support the protests following the death of George Floyd. Discussions of racism and police brutality have resulted in social media resource creation and outreach regarding Asian American solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives as well as reflections on anti-blackness and complicity in Asian American communities.

Racism is also an especially salient issue for Asian Americans in 2020 due to the increase of anti-Asian hate crimes and violence toward Asian American and Pacific Islander communities during the COVID-19 crisis. During the time period from its launch on March 19 until May 13, 2020, the STOP AAPI HATE reporting center received nearly 1,900 reports of anti-Asian discrimination.

Moving Forward

Continuing a legacy of youth activism, Asian American youth are participating in movements, are aware of the role government plays in their communities, and are committed to having a voice in the political process. Focused on addressing the intersecting crises of climate change, healthcare access, and racism, Asian American youth are registering their peers to vote and could be instrumental in addressing language and voting information access barriers in their communities. Believing they have the power to change things in this country and asserting that they will vote to express their views, the “Sleeping Giant” may be waking up.


[1] A breakdown of Census Bureau regions by state can be found here.

Authors: Peter de Guzman, Abby Kiesa, Alberto Medina