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Open Access Publications from the University of California

S.F. Chinese Immigrant Voters Persistency in Voter Registration


This working paper assesses the durability of Chinese-American political participation in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1996 and 2004. We are interested in this durability, which we call “survival,” for two reasons. First, because it gives us a better understanding of the universe of the population we are trying to study. Our survey was culled from those members of the 1996 cohort who are on the most recent registration rolls, which means that it contains information on only those members of the 1996 cohort who remained politically active. It is therefore useful for us to learn more about the characteristics of this group, and to determine what characteristics contribute to their continued political action. In particular, we want to know if the continued Chinese-American participation is a specifically ethnic phenomenon; that is, if the durability of the Chinese-American registration is owed to their being Chinese American, rather than to other factors (such as income or age or gender). If the continued Chinese-American registration is ethnic in nature, this would lend credence to our hypothesis that the large surge in political activity in 1996 by Chinese Americans was a defensive reaction, and one that remains influential today. Our second reason for performing this analysis is more academic: the data themselves tell an interesting story about the durability of political involvement. Political scientists have long concerned themselves with patterns of electoral participation, and in efforts to determine why political participation increases for some individuals and declines for others. Thus while our primary purpose in this duration analysis is to better understand this Bay Area Chinese-American population, a secondary benefit is that it yields us a useful experiment that can contribute to the more general literature in political science. We use registration to vote as our proxy for political activity, and the sample is, again, drawn from the 1996 cohort of first-time Chinese-American registers. The 1996 cohort is a useful one to study because, as we have noted in previous sections, 1996 marked a significant upsurge in Chinese-American political activity in the Bay Area, largely as a reaction to anti-immigrant legislation. The 1980s and early 1990s witnessed an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in both American politics at large and California in particular—a number of anti-immigrant measures were either proposed or passed by voters in California. The threat to immigrants posed by these measures prompted a significant increase in naturalization rates and voting on the part of Bay Area Chinese Americans, culminating in a large cohort of Chinese Americans that voted in the national elections of 1996. Naturalization was an understandable and predictable reaction for Chinese Americans. Naturalization not only provided protection against anti-immigrant measures, but also provided a voice with which the newly naturalized could help shape future policies. The durability of Chinese-American political engagement, however, is less easy to predict. Two conflicting dynamics are at work. On the one hand, ethnic mobilization, and particularly defensive mobilization, can be short-lived. Political activity spawned by a particular issue or threat also tends to be transitory; once the threat subsides, levels of political participation can also decay. Evidence also suggests, however, that political activity tends to predict itself—that once the initial foray into politics is made, subsequent involvement becomes easier and more common. In this framework ethnic mobilization, regardless of its root cause, would set in motion a positive cycle that leads to continued involvement. Lastly, of course, we should also include the possibility that the perceived threat has not subsided; if anti-immigrant sentiment remains strong, so too might the political participation of immigrant groups. We should note that Chinese Americans who registered for the first time in 1996 did not necessarily naturalize and register that year. Certainly some of them may have. But the sample may also include Chinese Americans who naturalized earlier but did not become impelled to register until 1996. Either way would represent a significant step toward political activity, and makes 1996 a useful starting point for our study. Anecdotal and descriptive data suggests that Chinese Americans have remained politically active in the Bay Area, and that indeed they have emerged as an important swing voting bloc in municipal elections (Lee, 2003). Chinese Americans have been credited with helping Gavin Newsom win the San Francisco mayoral race in 2004. In this study we use a survey and duration analysis to determine whether Chinese-American voting activity has in fact endured in the ten years since the 1996 cohort. Our results suggest that this is the case; Chinese Americans from the Bay Area cohort remain politically active.

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