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Asian-Americans step up to ballot box

Survey finds surge in first-time voters

More than 40 percent of Asian-Americans who cast ballots last November in Massachusetts were voting for the first time, according to a survey released yesterday by a civil rights group.

That proportion of first-time voters was higher in Massachusetts than in many other states surveyed across the country, according to exit polls conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Advocates said they hope that the results point to increasing civic engagement.

''It shows the light at the end of the tunnel," said Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association in Boston's Chinatown.

Asian-Americans who are registered to vote in Massachusetts tend largely to be Democratic or unenrolled -- except for Vietnamese-American voters, who lean Republican and who overwhelmingly backed President Bush for reelection, the survey indicated.

In the Commonwealth, 79 percent of Vietnamese-American poll respondents backed Bush, with just 21 percent favoring US Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. Nationally, the poll indicated that Vietnamese-American respondents favored Bush over Kerry 72 percent to 28 percent.

That disparity probably reflected not only the tendency among Vietnamese-Americans to vote Republican, reflecting the political beliefs of refugees who escaped communism, specialists in Asian-American politics said during a press conference yesterday. It probably also stemmed from concern over Kerry's antiwar activism and his later advocacy for normalizing relations with Vietnam, the specialists said.

''There was a very particular threat that John Kerry represented because of his anti-Vietnam War activism," said Peter Kiang, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. ''From the perspective of the refugee exile community, peace with the victor was an enormous threat."

The massive survey by the Legal Defense and Education Fund, a New York-based group that advocates for voting rights, used 1,197 volunteers at 87 polling sites in eight states. During the November 2004 election, they collected 10,789 surveys, which had been written in seven Asian languages as well as English, to track voting trends and root out any voting barriers. The volunteers fanned out to polling places with large concentrations of Asian-Americans and locations with a history of voting problems.

In Massachusetts, volunteers surveyed 777 Asian-American voters at about a dozen polling places in Chinatown, Dorchester, Mission Hill, Quincy, and Lowell. The pollsters aimed to get a picture of voting trends that was clearer than those provided by slimmer samples in national surveys. The survey did not calculate a margin of error.

''We're not extrapolating to use these numbers to reflect the overall population. That said, we do feel these numbers are reliable and paint a picture of the community because of the sheer numbers," said policy analyst Nancy Yu, author of the report.

The Bay State's Asian-American population soared 68 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the US Census, and individual candidates are making forays into politics -- most recently with a Korean-American aiming this year to become Boston's first city councilor of Asian heritage.

But many Asian residents are not citizens and so not legally allowed to vote; many more are not registered to do so, or simply fail to show up at the polls.

''The report shows that the Asian-American vote is strong, but that we face many of the same barriers that other immigrant communities have faced historically," said the City Council candidate, Sam Yoon of Dorchester. He is currently on leave from his job as housing director for the Asian Community Development Corp., and did not attend the press conference at its offices.

The defense and education fund contends that many Asian-Americans face voting or language barriers at polling places. In Massachusetts, exit polls found that 55 percent were not proficient in English. In the last election, more than one-third of voters polled needed some form of help to vote; a number of jurisdictions in the state provide language help, and voters have the right to bring a friend to translate a ballot.

Yu acknowledged that those results might have been different if exit polls had also targeted polling places in higher-income suburbs of Boston. ''We're looking for people with language barriers," she said.

In Massachusetts, 42 percent of Asian-Americans surveyed at the polls in November were first-time voters, compared with 38 percent overall in the eight states polled.

Among the survey's other findings:

Forty-four percent of Asian-Americans registered in Massachusetts were Democrats. Only 18 percent were registered as Republicans, while 36 percent were registered but not enrolled in either party.

Asian-American voters in Massachusetts favored Kerry over Bush 68 percent to 30 percent in November. Chinese-American voters backed Kerry 89 percent to 8 percent for Bush. Cambodian-American voters picked Kerry 86 percent to 13 percent for Bush.

Asian-American voters who backed Kerry cited the economy and jobs as the most important factor driving their votes, followed by healthcare, the war in Iraq, and terrorism/security. Those who supported Bush cited terrorism/security as the most important factor influencing their vote, followed by the economy and jobs, the war, and healthcare.

More than half of Asian-American voters polled in Massachusetts got their news from the ethnic press, rather than mainstream media. More than a third got their news from Asian-language media.

First-time voters

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