AAPI Millennials Have Opinions, But Will They Turn Out on Election Day?

UC Berkeley student lead coordinator for AAPI engagement Kat Nham speaks to her peers about California voter issues. Photo by Grace Hwang Lynch.
Figures show that 38 percent of AAPI millennials exercised their right to vote during the 2012 presidential election, but only 17 percent did during the 2014 midterms.

On a Thursday evening, when many parties take place around the U.C. Berkeley campus, over a dozen students are sitting around a conference table in the graduate student senate chambers. Sure, there’s free pizza, but the main reason they are here is to go over the minutiae of the upcoming November elections. Called a ballot party, the students are going through the items on their local tickets to see how they impact Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

When the conversation turns to California’s Proposition 67, upholding the state’s ban on plastic bags, Benyamin bin Mohd Yusof, a student senator at Berkeley says, “But my mother keeps all the old plastic bags in the kitchen!” eliciting cheers and snaps from everyone in the room.

Kat Nham, student lead coordinator for the AAPI Engagement Project, organized the ballot party as a way to counteract the cynicism many of her peers feel about the political system. “With my peers who are disillusioned with the presidential election, it’s been easier to talk about state issues and what these issues mean.”

Nham and Yusof are millennials, a group roughly defined as born between 1982 and 2004. For those on the younger end of this demographic group, 2016 is the first presidential election since they reached voting age. The children of Baby Boomers, millennials tend to be liberal – but disillusioned. Recent polls shows that AAPI millennials tend to be more progressive than the their parents. The challenge this fall is to see if these opinions can be turned into a collective voice at the ballot box.

Nham invited two representatives from the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), an Oakland based nonprofit group, to lead the discussion. APEN Executive Assistant Shina Robinson says issues of equity get young people fired up. “The folks in this room may have been too young for Occupy, but they care about Black Lives Matter.”

As they go through the California state ballot, organizers connect issues—such as the plastic bag proposition—to Asian American and Pacific Islander experiences. Since APEN is an environmental group, there is also discussion about how air pollution from freeways disproportionately impacts Oakland Chinatown or how climate change may be sparking super-typhoons hitting the Philippines.

Such viewpoints might be expected on the Berkeley campus. But the findings of the Fall 2016 National Asian American Survey (NAAS) show that across the board, AAPI millennials take interest in progressive issues. “While we find that Asian Americans are progressive on issues like racial justice, environmental protection, and education spending, millennials are even more progressive on these issues, and might even be helping to persuade older Asian American voters.” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, Associate Dean of the UC Riverside School of Public Policy.

Anisha Chemmachel, a second-year Berkeley student and a campus fellow for APEN, says punitive justice and bilingual education are at the top of her concerns. “I only spoke Malayalam. There was no leeway for bilingual education in elementary school,” she tells of her own experience immigrating to San Jose as a young child. “Besides just myself, it’s an issue that affection other communities— Native American, Latinx.”

UC Berkeley student Alaa Aissi studies California voter initiatives. Aissi said she does not identify as Asian American, but was there to learn about how issues face communities of color. Photo by Grace Hwang Lynch.
UC Berkeley student Alaa Aissi studies California voter initiatives. Aissi said she does not identify as Asian American, but was there to learn about how issues face communities of color. Photo by Grace Hwang Lynch.

Statistics show that AAPI youth are not only concerned with policies that benefit themselves. Among the results, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders ages 18-34 overwhelmingly support the Affordable Care Act (73%), increased federal assistance for college (81%), accepting Syrian refugees (72%), marijuana legalization (69%), greater efforts to curb climate change (85%), and policies to give Blacks equal rights with Whites (80%).

Given these liberal leanings, it’s not surprising that Asian American millennials overwhelmingly favor Democratic presidential nominee 61% of Hillary Clinton, with only 8 percent in support of Republican candidate Donald Trump. A notable 14 percent support a third-party candidate. However, young AAPIs who support Hillary aren’t as passionate about her as older voters are.

“One other piece that is interesting is the ‘enthusiasm gap’ between millennials and other Asian American voters,” says Taeku Lee, Professor of Political Science and Law and Director of the Haas Institute at U.C. Berkeley, one of the co-authors of the Fall 2016 National Asian American Survey. “Among Asian American millennials who supported Clinton, only 49% said that they supported Clinton ‘strongly’. Among those older than 35, fully 73 percent strongly supported Hillary Clinton.”

According to NAAS, Vietnamese Americans have the widest generation gap. “For Vietnamese American registered voters who we classify as millennials, 54 percent support Clinton and only 9 percent Trump,” says Lee. Only 35 percent of Vietnamese Americans older than 35 support Clinton, with 19 percent in favor of Trump.

But do strong progressive opinions lead to strong turnout at the ballot box? Lee describes this as a long-standing tension between young adults who are more progressive, but also less politically engaged than their elders. “In 2008 especially, but also 2012, Millennials voted at rates far below their elders in the Boomer generation,” Lee explains. “But they voted at higher rates than Gen X-ers when the Gen X-ers were the same age.”

For many millennials, political engagement—like many other facets of their lives—takes place online. Boston resident Helena Berbano partnered with Marian Guerra to start the website Asian American Millennials Unite last spring. Citing the rise of YouTube stars such as makeup artist Michelle Phan and entertainers Kev Jumba and Wong Fu, Berbano says the Internet seemed like a natural place to engage her peers. “It’s so accessible. It’s a way to be creative and present your authentic self,” says Berbano. “It’s an easy medium to get your voice heard, not only throughout the U.S., but the world.” Berbano says she, like many Millennials, is less concerned with homeland politics than her parents or grandparents, who lived through World War II and revolution in the Philippines.

“We are a generation with high student debt, and we live with rapid technology,” she adds. “High student debt leads us to be a little more progressive with education, the notion of having things more affordable.

Asian American Millennials Unite hosted a Twitter party on October 14, using the hashtag #CountMeIn to start discussions about the political concerns of young AAPIs.


Others are combining social media with in-person events to rally the Asian American youth vote and get people registered as state deadlines closed in mid-October. With only eight weeks of preparation, the I AM ASIAN AMERICAN campaign staged concerts in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington D.C. on October 16. The flagship L.A. event—hosted by comedian Jenny Yang and actor Parvesh Cheena—drew over 1,500 people, with hundreds more filling the other locations and nearly 1,000 streaming online. That real-life experience coupled with the online buzz led to the hashtag #IAmAsianAmerican, trending nationwide (beat out only by the Cowboys vs. Packers NFL game) all evening.

“It’s also an acknowledgment that millennials—especially millennials of color—have been disaffected and disenfranchised by the economic and social realities we have experienced over the last decade and a half,” says Jeff Yang, executive producer of the I AM ASIAN AMERICAN event. “This has produced a sense that the establishment deck is stacked against them. It’s led to wariness or apathy around activities like voting.”

While they didn’t quite reach their target of registering 15,000 Asian American voters during the one-night campaign, organizers produced a number of public service announcements at the concerts. Now it’s up to millennials to show up at the polls— or mail in their ballots. There isn’t detailed data on the voting patterns of AAPI millennials from past elections, and certainly not for young Asian American voters during earlier decades. Recent figures show that 38 percent of AAPI millennials exercised their right to vote during the 2012 presidential election, but only 17 percent did during the 2014 midterms.

While the political courtship of this demographic won’t stop after November 8, the turnout may predict how this generation’s political personality will shape up as it matures. Yang says, “This is a pivotal election that very well may define electoral behavior for this generation—depending on who gets elected and whether the outcome is real positive change, more of the same, or an utter disaster.