US elections

‘Fil-Ams can provide swing vote in US polls’

Maki Somosot

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Fil-Ams comprise the second largest Asian-American group in the US, but realized their potential as an electoral bloc only recently

Members of The Filipino American Vote Coalition of Hampton Roads, Virginia, at the launch of the National Registration Day in the US. Photo courtesy of Maki Somosot

NEW YORK CITY – Millions of Filipino Americans are getting off the political fence come November 6, promising to make both the Republican and Democratic camps in the US presidential election notice the swing vote they have neglected courting.

Fil-Ams comprise the second largest Asian-American group in the US, but realized their potential as an electoral bloc only recently. This time, they intend to make their presence felt, according to a non-governmental group that works to actively engage Fil-Ams in the voting process.

This year’s presidential election in the US pits incumbent President Barack Obama, a Democrat, against Republican Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

In the 2012 National Asian-American Survey, 52% of the Filipino-American respondents said they are likely to vote this November. They come in a close second to the Japanese, who are the most likely out of all Asian Americans to vote at 64%.

While most Filipino-Americans have voted Republican in the past, they are equally split in partisanship. According to the2012 Pew report on Asian Americans, 40% of Fil-Ams identify as Republicans or as independents leaning Republican, while 43% are Democrats or as independents leaning Democrat. 52% of native-born Fil-Ams tend to identify with or lean towards the Democrats.

Gloria Caoile, founding director of the Fil-Am Vote Initiative for the National Federation of Filipino American Associations, described engaging Filipino-Americans in the voting process in the past as a “very hard climb.”

“It was the census numbers that pushed them to get involved,” Caoile said. “They realized it would be a waste of our presence.”

Campaign materials now in Filipino

Comprising about 1.1% of the US population, Filipinos are the second largest Asian-American group after Chinese, based on 2010 census figures. The largest concentrations of Filipinos have traditionally been found in California, Hawaii, Illinois, and the Greater New York and DC areas.

However, Nevada and Virginia, two of the most hotly contested battlegrounds this year, are also home to some of the fastest-growing Filipino populations.

Battleground or “swing” states do not support a single candidate or party, making them major strategic locations for both Democrat and Republican parties. Often, these states have determined the ultimate outcome of the presidential elections.

Based on census figures, Filipinos in Nevada more than doubled from 2000 to 2010 and now total around 124,000. This growth spurt has led the Nevada census to translate their voting materials into Filipino.

Caoile, a native of Las Vegas, foresaw the upsurge 10 years ago and decided to ensure that the newest residents registered to vote.

“The numbers were there, so I felt very strongly that our voice should be heard,” she said. “There should be some of us that look like us that should represent us.”

In Virginia alone, there are over 400,000 Filipinos, constituting the largest Filipino-American community in the southeastern region of the US, according to Naomi Estaris, chair of the South Corps Coalition Committee for Fil-Am Vote in Virginia Beach.

‘Issues are universal’

Persistent unemployment, healthcare reform, welfare, immigration policy and Social Security are among the many issues that have mobilized both young and old Filipino-Americans to vote this election year.

Healthcare reform, welfare, Social Security, and veteran equity issues have spurred the majority of Fil-Am baby boomers in their 50s and 60s, said Estaris. She said that while this demographic has typically abstained from voting in past elections, for many of them, this will be their first time to vote.

“It’s something to mark, the fact that they’ve registered for the first time,” Estaris said. “They’re hearing more that these particular issues will have an impact not only on themselves, but will also be critical for the next generation.”

Young Filipino-Americans in their 20s and 30s are more impassioned by issues around unemployment, immigration policy, student debt, entrepreneurship, and small business ownership, according to KAYA: Filipino Americans for Progress Policy Director Paolo Pontemayor.

Pontemayor and Estaris agree that it is much easier to convince youths, because they consider it their civic duty to register and vote. However, they emphasize the need to educate them on the actual impact of their vote.

In spite of these demographic differences, Caoile believes that these issues are universal.

“There are no ‘Fil-Am’ issues or ‘mainstream’ issues,” Caoile said. “We’re not asking for anything different. We’re asking for every single thing an American has.”

Struggling vs invisibility

Bipartisan campaign outreach to Filipinos has increased since the 2008 elections. Pontemayor said that KAYA is “very grateful that the Democratic National Campaign has allowed them to volunteer in crucial congressional districts” in the Greater DC area. Meanwhile, Romney and his supporters endorsed Filipino-American veterans’ claim to full equity at a recent campaign stop in Nevada.  

Filipino Americans, like other Asian American communities, often do not get contacted by either political party, according to Gem Daus, professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland and scholar of Filipino-American history.

“Depending on where you live, we should be the swing or the key vote. We’re diverse enough politically to be the swing vote for both parties,” Daus explained.

Although many are politically conscious and involved, Filipino-Americans have struggled with being invisible in the public eye.

“People know us as boxers, singers, and dancers. As for elected federal officials, we don’t have anyone who’s pure Filipino,” said Erwin de Leon, research associate at the Urban Institute. “Even if you look at Obama’s political appointees, they’re predominantly East or South Asian. What’s going on there?”

Promoting activism

Filipino values like “hiya” – being reserved about opening up and speaking out – promote this invisibility, according to De Leon. Filipino-Americans also have to overcome the “archipelago” mentality and work on uniting as one community, he said. 

Daus said that this self-promoting cycle of invisibility applies to other Asian Americans. Despite being the fastest growing minority population in the US, they represent a large electorate that often goes unnoticed by both parties.

“Part of it is the whole model minority bill,” Daus said. “Our immigrant parents told us to just do well in school and not worry about this stuff. They told us to be good citizens and to do well financially, because that’s how you should succeed.”

“We don’t know that Filipinos were the most active in the labor union in California and agitated as Marcos activists. A lot of our history is hidden from us.”

He said it is important for all Asian Americans, including Filipinos, to tell their stories in order to be noticed.

“The idea is that we have to learn how to value our stories and that they are worth telling. It’s the start of any kind of activism: you’re valuing yourself, your story and its impact on other people.” –

(This story was first published October 17, 2012.)

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