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Experts: Asian Americans Could Cast Decisive Vote in Tight US Elections - 2004-03-02

There are 12 million American citizens who trace their ancestries back to Asia and the Pacific Islands - about .5 percent of the U.S. population. Asian Pacific Americans acknowledge that although they cannot influence U.S. politics by sheer numbers, they stress that their populations are heavily concentrated in 16 key states, where they believe they can serve as swing voters, a crucial block to tip the balance in close elections.

National Council of Asian Pacific Americans chairwoman Karen Narasaki says her group has a diverse membership. "In the United States, Asian Pacific American cover Pacific Islanders, obviously from the islands in the Pacific Rim, as well as Asia - both East Asia and Southeast Asia - and South Asia, which would include the Indian subcontinent, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan," she said.

Getting them to agree on anything is not easy. But in mid-February, eighteen national Asian Pacific American groups got together under the council's auspices and, for the first time, issued a united platform outlining the community's priorities.

Ms. Narasaki, who is also the president of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, says two-thirds of Asian Pacific Americans are foreign-born, so it is no surprise that one of the major issues of concern is immigration.

"You will see in the platform, for example, interest about comprehensive immigration reform," she said. "In addition to bringing [the] undocumented out of the shadows, we also want to make sure the backlogs for family immigration are addressed. Right now, for example, if you are Filipino American and you are waiting to bring over a beloved brother or sister, you could be waiting up to 22 years."

Asian Pacific Americans, as a group, are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, but they still do not have significant overall numbers. Ms. Narasaki sees the best chance to influence elections is in states where Asian Pacific Americans have the highest concentrations.

Many of these states have so-called Super Tuesday primaries and caucus contests on March 2. "New York, Texas, California, Minnesota - these four have very large Asian Pacific American populations - particularly California. California has over a third of the APA population," she explained. "And it is about 12 to 13 percent of the population of that state now. So, obviously, it can make an enormous difference for candidates."

In the current U.S. political landscape, the inevitable question is, do Asian Pacific Americans tend to side with the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?

"I think the challenge Asian Pacific Americans have faced in partisan politics is that the Democratic Party largely believes that many Asians are Republican, and the Republican Party believes largely that Asians are Democrat, said Ms. Narasaki. "So, neither party has invested what they need to invest in terms of educating our community about their perspective."

Victoria Lai, the Democratic Party's director of Asian Pacific Islander American outreach, says she thinks accusations that both political parties have overlooked Asian Americans is fair criticism.

According to Ms. Lai, one lesson her party has learned from the National Council on Asian Pacific Americans is how the Asian Pacific American vote could have determined the 2000 presidential election.

"NCAPA, the organization that recently released a policy platform, highlighted a number of states where the population of Asian Americans in the state was greater than the difference between Al Gore and George Bush in the 2000 elections," she said. "Now, that just goes to show that there are a plethora of Asian Americans who could show up to the polls and change the future of the campaign, and how our country is led in the next few years."

Republican Party spokeswoman Christine Iverson says her party is also aware of the importance of attracting as many votes as possible. "Asian Americans are very important to the Republican Party," she said. "We are aggressively reaching out to as many voters as we can. We believe it is going to be a very close election and we are focused right now on reaching out to a number of different groups - Asian Americans are one of those groups."

"What is up? We are KAI. Did you know that you can make a difference? Did you know that you have a voice? Did you know that we can make a change? Did you know that we can be heard? Make a change? How? How can we do this? Exercise your right, as Asian Americans. Voice your vote," says a public service announcement recorded by KAI, a group of five Asian American singers in San Francisco.

Of the approximately eight million eligible Asian Pacific American voters, only about half are registered to vote. Christine Chen, executive director of the Organization of Chinese Americans, says the numbers are low, but the turnout of registered voters is high.

"In terms of the Asian community, in comparison to other minority groups, is we have a low voter registration rate, but we have a large voter turnout rate," she said. "So, the key is, if we can get them registered to vote, they are more than likely to actually go out and vote."

One Indonesian American who is excited about her first chance to vote in a U.S. presidential election is Dewita Soeharjono, who became a citizen last May. One-month later, she decided to volunteer for the Howard Dean campaign.

"Unless you make a noise, your voice be heard, they are not going to do anything," she said. "So, that is why I decided to participate in it - just to know how the process works," she said. "Because everything is new to me as well."

Ms. Soeharjono became involved with a group called Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Dean, and says she was crushed when Howard Dean withdrew from the campaign. But she says the group's 100-plus members around the country have become committed to staying politically active.