Looking out over dancers decked out in glittering dresses and stalls selling bejeweled bangles, Indira Sharma took the stage at a Diwali celebration in Ellicott City recently and encouraged those gathered to cast their ballots this fall.
“I urge you to vote this election, and do not just vote along your party lines,” she told a gathering of a few hundred, her voice echoing through the venue. “We’re very quick to vote Republican, Democrat, independent. I ask that you vote smart this election. Vote for issues that matter to you, the Indian community.”
Diwali Mela was a chance for families to revel in the popular Hindu festival, which celebrates the victory of good over evil and light over darkness. It was also an opportunity for political candidates — many of whom were dressed in traditional Indian saris or kurtas — to court Howard County voters, a growing segment of whom are Asian American.
In addition to growing in numbers in Howard County and across Maryland, Asian Americans are wielding more political clout, according to experts and community members.
“I think we’re at an inflection point,” said Hemant Sharma, Indira’s husband and a fellow volunteer for the Indian Origin Network of Howard County. “A community that previously, I think, was somewhat quiet in terms of political engagement and political involvement has really figured out now that we do have to speak up and that our voice does matter.”
Asian Americans constitute 6% of eligible voters in the state as of 2020, putting Maryland among the top 10 states with the highest percentages of such voters, according to the Pew Research Center. In Howard County, the Asian and Pacific Islander population has grown quickly in recent years, increasing from 14% in 2010 to about 20% in 2021, census estimates show.
Montgomery County has the state’s largest population of Asian residents, an estimated 16% of the overall county population, according to the census. Other places in Maryland also have growing populations of Asian residents, including Anne Arundel County, 4.5%; and Baltimore County, 6.5%.
Nationwide, the increase of Asian American residents is affecting the dynamics of elections, said Christine Chen, executive director of Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, a national nonprofit that works to mobilize Asian American voters.
“With these elections being so close and our numbers growing, they can no longer afford to discount this particular community,” she said.
Nationally, Asian Americans tend to lean Democratic. However, a survey of Asian American voters found that a significant number — up to 35% — are independents, Chen said. Politicians need to do a better job of engaging with Asian American voters if they want to build support.
Pravin Ponnuri, who founded the Indian Origin Network of Howard County seven years ago, encourages Asian American voters to identify more as independents and to vote based on issues and performance, rather than political party.
“You [as a group] can’t be associated with one single party,” he said. “That’s when you start [getting] taken for granted.”
Not only do candidates and campaigns need to recognize the growing Asian American population in Maryland, they also need to understand that such voters come from diverse backgrounds and experiences, according to state Sen. Clarence Lam, chair of the Maryland Legislative Asian-American and Pacific-Islander Caucus.
“It’s incumbent on candidates and campaigns to recognize differences within the Asian American population and speak to those populations so they feel like they’re being heard,” Lam said.
The political power of Asian Americans has been growing for years, Lam said, and now “we’re reaching critical mass.”
“As the first generation of Asian Americans leads to the second generation, [which] leads to the third generation here, they become more active in the community,” he said.
In Maryland, Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese and Korean residents make up the largest shares of the Asian American population.
National voter surveys have shown that Indian Americans tend to be the most progressive, while Vietnamese American voters tend to vote Republican, said Janelle Wong, a professor of government and politics and Asian American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Even with the political party divides among Asian American voters, there are a range of issues — beyond what are stereotypically considered Asian issues such as immigration and education — on which there is consensus, Wong said.
“They have shown very, very consistent support for many of the issues that Democrats consider core to the party agenda — gun control, universal health care, minimum wage and taxing the rich,” said Wong, the author of the book “Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change.”
In 2016, the Chinese American Parent Association in Howard County began hosting candidate forums with a focus on Board of Education races, said the organization’s founder, Jean Xu. However, after a few years, they realized that leaders from county executive to state representative all play important roles in the educational system.
The Chinese American Parent Association now considers one of its main missions to be empowering first-generation Chinese immigrants to become informed voters, she said, and it hosts meet-and-greets with a variety of political candidates.
“Locally, I think we have increased our voting rate dramatically,” Xu said. “From years ago, people were not involved and didn’t have knowledge. Now I have seen many people who are heavily involved with different races.”
Xu said members of her group are particularly concerned about the removal of school resource officers from public schools, especially as Asian American children report incidents of bullying and as schools have gone on lockdown in response to recent gun and bomb threats.
It’s not only the work of immigrant-focused groups or the growth of the Asian American population in Maryland that are spurring more political awareness, according to community leaders.
Chao Wu, a Democratic candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates, believes increased incidents of anti-Asian racism and hate crimes against Asian Americans have played an important role in mobilizing Asian American voters.
“That shouldn’t be tolerated by anyone, but unfortunately that has not been denounced by every group in the community. There are some people that still try to ignore that hatred. … We sometimes really get ignored. I hope that by participating, running for office, we’re going to change that,” said Wu, who became the first Asian American chair of the Howard County Board of Education in 2020.
At the Diwali celebration in Ellicott City, Indira Sharma announced that the Indian Origin Network is backing Republican Allan Kittleman for county executive. Kittleman is seeking to unseat Democratic incumbent Calvin Ball, who defeated Kittleman four years ago.
Ball also made an appearance at Diwali Mela; he has been endorsed by another immigrant group, CASA in Action.
Endorsements by the Indian Origin Network are a more recent development, Indira Sharma said. The group began rating and backing political candidates during the 2020 election, recognizing that the Asian community needs to have a voice.
In the past, sometimes it’s felt like politicians took advantage of Asian American voters, said Hemant Sharma.
“They only show up to take the picture, but when the Asian community needs support, they’re not there. They don’t have the Asian community’s back,” he said, “Events like these are an opportunity to really tell the community who has had our back.”