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Asian American Institute volunteers conducted exit polls at the Warren Park Field House on Nov. 3.

Many Asian American voters are foreign born, have limited command of English -- and pack an increasing punch at the polls

by Mariam Khan
Nov 13, 2012


Mariam Khan/MEDILL

South Asian community members and volunteers asked questions about voters' social and cultural concerns and issues that most concern the Asian community in Chicago.

Mariam Khan/MEDILL

Sam Varghese of AAI, Charles Doss of UIC, and an exit poll volunteer share why they believe voting is important specifically for the South Asian community in Chicago.

Mariam Khan/MEDILL

Ami Gandhi, executive director of SAAPRI, explains the importance of exit polling and the types of questions she and other community members asked of Asian voters on Election Day.

Asian Americans, the fastest growing ethnic group in Illinois, made themselves heard in this year’s election, even if some of them needed a bit of help with the language.

Over 80 percent of Asian Americans who voted this year were foreign born and spoke English as a second language, according to exit poll research conducted by the Asian American Institute and South Asian American Policy and Research Institute.

About 20 percent of respondents were voting for the first time in the United States, the researchers found, and almost half of respondents reported that they understand spoken and written English less than “very well.”

With their numbers growing in the Chicago metropolitan area, Asians are becoming more vocal, and more sought-after as well. That’s one reason why the Asian advocacy groups undertook the exit polls in precincts around Devon Avenue and neighboring areas in suburban Cook County.

“Exit polling is a critical instrument in understanding why our community came out to vote, and it will help shape our future ‘get out the vote’ work,” said Kathleen Fernicola, policy director of Asian American Institute, or AAI.

AAI and South Asian American Policy Research Institute, or SAAPRI, fielded about 50 volunteers to help assist in collecting the data. The groups’ civic-engagement coalition held nine early voting events, and mobilized close to 1,200 early voters. Of the hundreds of people surveyed, 768 identified themselves as Asian. The informal survey was administered during several early voting events, and on Election Day.

The research offered a diverse portrait of Asian Americans in Chicago, which includes people of Chinese, Korean, Indian, Laotian, Filipino, Pakistani, Japanese, Vietnamese, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Thai, Cambodian, and other Asian backgrounds.

“Such research provides crucial insights into the perspectives and potential of this rapidly growing group of voters,” said Ami Gandhi, executive director of SAAPRI.

Over a quarter of respondents said they used help from a bilingual poll worker. For many, it was the first time they have had access to such help: the 2010 U.S. Census found that in the Chicago area South Asians have crossed the numerical threshold which, under the federal Voting Rights Act, required the state to add language assistance at certain heavily Asian voting districts.

As a result, this election year was the first time Hindi was listed on the ballot in Chicago. Other language assistance in Urdu and Gujarati was also available via written materials and computer language assistance for the first time.

The Census found approximately 240,000 South Asian Americans living in Illinois, up more than 55 percent from 2000, according to SAAPRI. Of that total, 42,500 South Asians are living in Chicago now, and a whopping 171,000 live in the suburban six-county areas of Cook, Lake, McHenry, Kane, DuPage, and Will.

Of those South Asian Americans in Illinois, SAAPRI said, 155,000 are American citizens, including over 131,000 Indian Americans and 24,000 Pakistani Americans. Until now, however, limited English proficiency has served as a barrier to voting and civic engagement.

To counter this, AAI and SAAPRI have spent the past year advising local election boards in implementing legally mandated language assistance at the polls in Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati.

Some of the data from Asian voting in Chicago hasn’t yet been finalized. But one thing is clear: Asians in metro Chicago, like Asians nationwide, voted overwhelmingly Democratic, and played a key role in Barack Obama’s re-election. Of those polled by AAI and SAAPRI, 72 percent said they voted for Democrats.

According to the Pew Research Center, President Obama won 80 percent of the nonwhite vote. Nonwhite voters, which include Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, were up two percentage points to 28 percent of the total electorate last Tuesday. As of yet, the exact number ofAsian Americans who voted this year in Illinois is not available; neither is the number of Asian Americans who used language assistance in Illinois.

Nationally, numbers of Asian American voters in the United States are steadily rising. According to Pew, Asians are expected to make up 9 percent of the total population by 2050. Right now, they represent 5 percent of the population.

Despite their Democratic leanings in the latest election, most Asian voters named substantive issues, rather than parties, when they listed the issues most important to them. Those factors include the economy and health care, as well as foreign policy.

Fowzia Virji, who became an American citizen in 2010, voted for the first time in the United States last Tuesday. Originally from India, she moved to the states in 2005.

“I always felt that if you are an American citizen, it is your right and your duty to vote,” Virji said in an interview. “Whichever party and whichever candidate, you must stand by it and vote.”