Voter registration gaps by race and ethnicity The two fastest-growing groups of eligible U.S. voters — Latinos and Asian Americans — also have the lowest voter registration rates. Advocates are trying to boost sign-ups for a healthier democracy.

Why there's a long-standing voter registration gap for Latinos and Asian Americans

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Two of the fastest-growing groups of eligible voters in the United States are Asian Americans and Latinos, but they also have some of the lowest voter registration rates. NPR's voting rights correspondent Hansi Lo Wang has more.

KATHERINE DE PENA: Hi. Como estas?

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: On a windy afternoon in Reading, Pa., Katherine De Pena and her computer tablet are on a mission.

DE PENA: We're doing whatever it takes to get them registered now.

WANG: Including standing outside the supermarket.

DE PENA: Yes because we have a lot of Latinos here. CTown is really famous for Latinos because we can find everything that we need.

WANG: And what De Pena and other organizers with Make the Road Pennsylvania say they need are eligible voters like Joseph Irizarry who can sign up online.

JOSEPH IRIZARRY: I thought it was going to be hard. You know what I'm saying? But it's just like, write your name and stuff like that, and that's it. You know what I mean?

WANG: Have you voted before?

IRIZARRY: No, this is gonna be my first time because I really, really interested to vote this year.

WANG: Irizarry says he gets why other eligible voters may not be interested.

IRIZARRY: Sometimes, nobody wants to vote 'cause they - oh, they're not going to give me nothing. But really, really, it give you something.

WANG: It's a kind of pitch that advocates are trying to use to overcome a persistent challenge facing U.S. democracy. For years, the voter registration rates for Latinos and Asian Americans have been among the lowest of the country's racial and ethnic groups. And long-standing barriers keep those rates low, says Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas, who directs research at the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Institute.

RODRIGO DOMINGUEZ-VILLEGAS: There are some types of jobs that might be preventing people from being able to even take time off work to vote. And so when people know that they're not going to be able to exercise the right to vote, they are a lot less inclined to even register for it.

VIVIAN CHANG: A lot of folks are just, like, struggling to survive, trying to get through the day-to-day. Voting is this very separate thing.

WANG: Vivian Chang is the executive director of the advocacy group Asian Americans United in Philadelphia, where a team works with many eligible voters who tried for years to become naturalized U.S. citizens.

CHANG: If they're not welcomed by the government, then it feels like, well, why participate in this system? Like, how does that relate to me?

WEI CHEN: (Speaking Chinese).

WANG: Still, Wei Chen, Asian Americans United's civic engagement director, has been stopping by adult daycare centers for Chinese speakers to explain how to get registered and how to use Philadelphia's voting machines that are now required to support three languages, including Chinese.

CHEN: (Speaking Chinese).

We are fighting for language justice. Providing information, having material there is not enough. We need them to hire people who speak in our language.

WANG: Beyond language barriers, there's also the perception that interest in U.S. politics among Asian Americans and Latinos is low.

TAEKU LEE: I think they are every bit as invested in what politics can do to them or do for them.

WANG: Taeku Lee, professor of government at Harvard University, says the problem is mainly with the major political parties and campaigns. They've been less likely to contact Asian Americans and Latinos compared to other groups. And in some states, Lee says, restrictive voter ID requirements are disproportionately affecting many eligible voters of color.

LEE: The politics of today is a politics where there are organized forces that are aiming to further contract those rights of citizenship for groups like Latinx and Asian Americans.

DE PENA: Nice to meet you, Jose. Are you already registered to vote?

JOSE CRUZ-HERNANDEZ: Huh?

DE PENA: (Speaking Spanish).

WANG: Back in Reading, Pa., Katherine De Pena is still stopping people with her practice pitch.

CRUZ-HERNANDEZ: You know, I don't have, basically, time. I have to take care of my daughter. I have to do a lot of things.

WANG: Still, Jose Cruz-Hernandez is sold.

CRUZ-HERNANDEZ: Because without our voice, nothing's going to be done.

DE PENA: We want them to have that - feel the power. That's why I feel so happy.

WANG: You're helping someone express their...

DE PENA: Yes.

WANG: ...Opinion, their voice.

DE PENA: Yes. Yeah, and that's - this is the only way because this is a bigger thing happening right now. Most people don't know the power they have in their hands.

WANG: Power that De Pena hopes will lead to a higher registration rate for Latinos.

DE PENA: Don't you worry. We got this, like, within five, 10 years (laughter). Yeah, it takes time.

WANG: Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Southeastern Pennsylvania.

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