Asian Americans Get Help Crossing the Language Barrier on Their Way to the Polls

Japanese-American actor George Takei appeared in a get-out-the-vote video in 2008. Photo: Screenshot from Youtube video/CAUSEusa

Asian American voters may enjoy their strongest political voice yet in the November election. They are the fastest growing -- and perhaps most overlooked -- minority group in the nation, and a new poll out today indicates they could play a decisive role in swing states. President Barack Obama has even begun courting their vote.

But not all of them will have an easy time making their voice heard. Language barriers can make it difficult for non-English speaking immigrants to participate in the political process. That's why, to make it easier, elections officials are required by law to offer ballots in multiple languages. Likewise, some companies and non-profit organizations make it a point to reach out to non-English-speaking communities in their own language.

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To that end, the Center for Asian Americans United for Self-Empowerment, or CAUSE, will be holding a voter information meeting in downtown Los Angeles this Friday.

Some people may be familiar with CAUSE by way of its flashy, star-studded get-out-the vote videos, like this little gem:

The Friday event, which is geared toward Chinese Americans, will cover items on the June ballot and will be conducted in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

At least a few attendees expected to show up may have been prompted to take action after increased media attention surrounding a Walmart planned in Chinatown.

Walmart recently won last-minute approval to open a new store in that community. The city council had voted unanimously to ban chain retail stores there, but not before the big box store managed to get its building permit. In April, The New York Times reported that Wal-Mart had used bribery to expedite the approval process in other cities, igniting a scandal as some questioned whether the same tactics were used in Los Angeles.

While residents of Chinatown are anything but united on the issue of opening a new Walmart there, the swirl of attention around their community and what they thought created for some a sense of empowerment. Residents who couldn't speak English well or at all wanted to know how they could get involved and be heard, said Carrie Gan, executive director of CAUSE.

"All the older adults there wanted to know how they can get their voice heard in light of that situation. We said the first thing you should do is register to vote," Gan said.

Though they may not be able to vote on the Walmart issue, residents can begin to engage their elected officials on future issues.

"I think it starts with getting informed with what they're voting on now that will impact the decisions lawmakers make in the future," Gan said.

When these voters head to the polls, they will be armed with the new information, and they will be able to cast their ballots in Chinese, effectively giving them a boost across the language barrier.

And Chinese is not the only language available on the ballot. While it has been offered for some time, other Asian languages have been introduced with the swelling of the Pan-Asian American community, as required under the Voting Rights Act. The latest census data showed the Asian American population increased by 46% between 2000 and 2010, more than any other nationwide. Thus, in L.A. County Asian Indian, Cambodian, and Thai will be added to a list of alternate languages that already features Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, according to the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

The National Asian American Coalition, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C., points out that the Asian American vote isn't likely to count for much in the presidential election in California, where the balance weighs too heavily in favor of Democrats to influence the outcome. But there will be plenty of local issues to decide, with a ballot chock full of State Senate and Assembly races, judicial elections, two statewide propositions, and numerous local measures.


  • When - Friday, May 18th from 2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
  • Where - Grand Plaza Conference Room in Downtown Los Angeles (601 N. Grand Avenue)

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story may have implied that the residents of Chinatown were not informed about the Walmart opening or that they were united against it. That would be incorrect, and the text has been modified accordingly.

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