Election Day 2018 is approaching, and I have some advice for political candidates:
Don’t ignore Americans who trace their roots to India.
I spent nearly eight years of my legal career working on post-9/11 civil rights issues. This work brought me into close contact with Indian American communities nationwide who faced hate crime, job discrimination, racial profiling, and school bullying.
More often than not, I found that policymakers had little knowledge about the cultural nuances of South Asia. Some of our interactions were awkward. One former member of Congress addressed me as a Muslim at a meeting on Capitol Hill, even though I am Sikh. Another asked me for Indian restaurant recommendations, something I did not feel qualified to opine about, owing to my preference for Italian food.
Despite these stumbles, it’s never too late to change course.
According to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there are over 3.4 million people of Indian origin in the United States. Indian Americans are part of the wider Asian-American community, which is the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States.
The 10 states with the largest Indian-American communities are California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Illinois, Florida, Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. These states account for 73% of our nation’s Indian American population.
If you analyze the data further, you will find that Indian Americans are heavily represented in states and congressional districts where elections are forecast to be close.
Senate races in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and Nevada are ranked as toss-ups, and candidates there cannot afford to leave votes on the table. The Indian origin populations in these states range from 11,121 in Nevada to 143,020 in Florida. (Speaking of Florida, I voted there in 2000, when George W. Bush’s official margin of victory over Al Gore was 537 votes.)
Among House races considered competitive, several congressional districts are located in counties with substantial Indian American populations. In California alone, these include San Joaquin (17,797), Los Angeles (88,505), Ventura (12,342), and Orange (50,286) counties. Beyond California, Indian Americans are heavily represented in the toss-up 32nd congressional district of Texas, which encompasses Dallas (49,975) and Collin (47,673) counties, and they comprise nearly eight percent of the total population of Loudoun County, Virginia, which sits in that state’s potentially flippable 10th congressional district.
Indian American voters could play decisive roles in these races and others around the nation that are similarly tight, and so it would behoove political candidates to engage more substantively with this vibrant and diverse community.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, nearly two-thirds of Indian Americans surveyed identified with the Democratic Party. A post-2016 survey by researchers in California and Maryland found that 77% of Indian American respondents supported Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, President Trump has courted Indian Americans more than his predecessors and appointed several to high-profile positions in his administration. This symbolism is not lost on Indian Americans, especially business owners, who benefit from tax reform and deregulation but who have historically felt underrepresented in the political process. This could translate into increased support for Republicans.
On other hand, Republicans may be burning a bridge with the community over immigration. During much of the 20th century, racist laws restricted immigration to the United States from Asia. It was not until the immigration reforms of 1965 and their emphasis on family-reunification that the Indian American population started to rise. In recent years, Republicans have railed against “chain migration” and introduced the RAISE Act to restrict legal immigration to the United States. Indian Americans are in the crosshairs of this legislation, and this could translate into continued support for Democrats.
For political candidates and public servants, knowing your constituents isn’t just good practice; it could mean the difference between winning and losing the next election. That is why Indian American voters should be taken seriously this November and beyond.
(Rajdeep Singh Jolly is a lawyer and writer in Washington, DC.)