Vietnamese Americans Casting Their Votes
By Jackie Bong-Wright
V- Day in the Washington area
Around eight in the morning of V-Day, November 2, Tonnu Minh and her husband, residents of the Winter Hill complex, went to cast their votes at Thomas Jefferson Elementary school in Falls Church City. At the narrow entrance, they were handed a green sample ballot with the Democratic candidates in large print, and, on the other side of the entrance, a yellow sample ballot with the Republican candidates in bold print.
Inside, it was easy for the couple to check the oval to the left of the name of the candidate for president and House member they wanted to vote for. They were not required to choose yes or no for proposed constitutional amendments in the box underneath if they preferred not to. After they finished, they were told to feed their ballots into a machine, and were handed a “I have voted” sticker. They proudly exited the gym door with a big smile.
Tom Perkins, one of the election officers, directed the traffic inside the school. He said enthusiastically that 500 people had already cast their votes, a number that would have been reached only in the late afternoon in previous elections.
At the Willston Community Center in Fairfax County two miles away, a long U- shaped line was forming. Noi Ngac, 68, a salad bar clerk at Giant food, and his wife, Chuc Le, an administrative assistant, waited for nearly an hour under a soft sun before being let inside the polling room. “We made sure we set an example as responsible new citizens for our compatriots and other ethnic immigrants to go and vote,” Noi said.
“I want to vote Kerry out. He was against the Vietnam War and also against the war in Iraq. I saw a photo of him shaking hands with a high Communist official in Hanoi. Didn’t Kerry know how cruel the Vietnamese Communists were? They cut up my uncle, a land-owner, into three pieces and jailed his family when the Land Reform took place in 1953. The hard-core peasants in the special People’s Courts held public trials and sentenced to death what they called “public enemies.” They executed or buried alive over 3,000 “traitors” and imprisoned 12,000 innocent professionals and business people. They destroyed the middle class in the North including many in my family. I don’t want Kerry to win.”
Lining up before the couple, Tran Luong, 73, holding a stick and looking tired, echoed Noi. “I have had two strokes since I immigrated to the U.S. I spent seven years in jail in Vietnam. I was punished by the Communists for fighting alongside the Americans in the Special Forces. When I got out of prison, my kidneys were totally damaged and I urinated blood. I suffered from diabetes and heart ailments. I am angry that Kerry is pro-VietCong along with Jane Fonda. He threw away the medals he received from his Vietnam exploits. Soldiers must never betray the army and act in such a shocking way. Kerry is not the war hero he pretended to be; he shamed the army and all of us by his cowardly action. This is the reason why I came out to vote for the first time since I became an American citizen.”
Luong needed assistance in casting his vote with the electronic voting machine. Coming out with a proud “I voted” sticker on his chest, he laughed with tears in his eyes. “I am so happy I voted. Thank God,” he cried out, shaking emotionally.
Hope Cao, a hot-dog vendor in Washington, DC, went to church early on V-Day to pray for President Bush to get re-elected before going to vote. She said, “Since the 9-11 attacks, my business has not been as good as it was before because tourists have been scarcer. But thank God, the President has taken numerous measures to prevent other attacks from occurring. Although I am a Buddhist, I pray that Bush’s God will help him carry out his mission to fight terrorism here and abroad. I am more concerned about security than the economy. If this country is destroyed by terrorists, you won’t survive to enjoy life with all the money you make anyway. We need a strong man who stands up against evil forces, in Iraq and elsewhere.”
Pre-Election Campaigns Among Vietnamese-Americans
Vietnamese in the U.S. and even overseas voiced strong opinions in campaigning for both Kerry and Bush, and their views flooded the Vietnamese media and websites. One website mentioned that, normally, former diplomats and military commanders avoid making political statements, but noted that a group of 53 former ambassadors, State Department officials, and military leaders had accused the Bush administration of undermining U.S. credibility in the Middle East by its strong support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Another site said that Cheney cursed and Bush drank, and were both a pain and a shame to our American way of life! Did we want them to be our leaders and setting bad example for our children four more years?
On the other hand, Dr. Nguyen Phuc Lien in Switzerland reported that most E.U. leaders, including French President Jacques Chirac and President Putin from Russia said that Bush was the man to deal with national and international war on terror.
Dr. Nguyen Ba Long from Canada wrote that Kerry was an inconsistent man on major issues — in favor of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, then opposing it; for the war in Iraq, then against it; for a strong U.S. defense, then voting against military weapons programs; for the U.S. Patriot Act, then opposing it. “How can a man wavering with the tides and going with the flow act with conviction to fight against a dangerous world infested with ready-made suicide-killers? Does he need to go to the U.N. to build consensus and wait for a solution to stop terrorism?” asked Dr. Long of American voters.
On the other side, billionaire philanthropist George Soros was crisscrossing the country, arguing against the re-election of Bush, and noting that Kerry had won all three debates and Bush had made colossal blunders in Iraq. Former Democratic presidential contestant Al Gore, ailing President Clinton and many prominent Hollywood artists were out campaigning, too, and their words were posted on the web for Asians to read. And Michael Moore’s 9/11 Fahrenheit documentary discrediting Bush seemed to influence not only the average American but also Asians.
Two young Vietnamese siding with different parties conducted a public debate on the net. Sonny Le, a Democrat, recommended that Vietnamese- Americans make their voting decisions based on facts, not emotions. He argued that the U.S. decision to withdraw from Vietnam was RealPolitik. Shandon Phan, another young activist, disagreed, “The withdrawal was not decided in the White House, but rather by thousands of anti-war protests fueled by Jane Fonda and John Kerry.” Shandon said that Kerry’s flip-flopping policies showed a lack of conviction leading to a lack of courage, endurance and commitment in the face of opposition.
Shandon also faulted Kerry for not supporting the Vietnamese dissidents, most of them doctors, journalists, teachers, religious leaders, and even former high-ranking Communist officers, who called for help from the outside world. Instead, Kerry sided with the Vietnamese Communist government, using “secret hold” procedures in the Senate to block the Vietnam Human Rights Act, which had passed with a resounding majority 410-1 in the House in September 2001.
Echoing many other Vietnamese, Shandon said that Bush showed real courage in listing Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC)” under the International Religious Freedom Act (which Shandon helped to author). Shandon questioned Kerry’s continuous opposition to confronting the abuses of a brutal regime, and said that that raised concerns about a Kerry presidency, with regard both to Vietnam and to other countries around the world. Shandon concluded that the choice for Vietnamese-Americans was clear: work to re-elect President George W. Bush on November 2 as the most suitable commander-in-chief.
The large Vietnamese-American vote was encouraged by a number of voting activists. Like many Vietnamese groups in many states, lawyer Nguyen The Sinh and his wife, Le, called on volunteers to form their own “Re-elect Bush-Cheney” campaigns in the Washington area. Tran Bach Dornf in California sent out emails and launched get-out-the-vote operations with phone banks, door-to-door campaigning, yard signs and bumper stickers.
The Asian Pacific Islanders Americans campaign, APIAVote 2004, headed by Janelle Hu in the capital, worked tirelessly to mobilize and educate eligible Asian voters, one third of whom were voting for the first time. The national office partnered with hundreds of local Asian organizations and civil rights advocates to monitor elections and conduct exit polls in eight states. They were set up to receive complaints of voter discrimination, intimidation, and denial of language assistance. They also translated and distributed the Voter Bill of Rights into APIA languages. APIAVote work to inform and empower APIA voters led to a record turnout on November 2.
Historically, the Asian American community has not been very active in the political process. However, an online poll conducted by Bendixen & Associates and the Terrence Group revealed Asian Americans to be a “swing” constituency precisely because a significant proportion of their communities were not affiliated with a political party. This time, of a total sample of 573, 67 percent were registered to vote and 75 percent planned to vote. 34 percent were affiliated with the Democratic party, 34 percent had no party affiliation and 25 percent were affiliated with the Republican party. 36 percent were undecided, followed by Bush (33%) and Kerry (30%).
Minority Impact Growing
Even before the 2004 election, the Urban Institute reported that the impact at the voting booth of the two largest immigrant-dominated populations – Latinos and Asians – was increasing. While the number of votes cast by whites in presidential elections rose by only 4.3 percent between 1996 and 2000, the number of Asian votes rose by 22 percent and the Hispanic vote by 19 percent. 64 percent of Asians represent 5.3 percent of the votes cast and 40 percent of Latinos represented 12.6 percent of the total U.S. population in 2000.
Both Latino and Asian populations are projected to grow rapidly, reaching about 25 percent and 10 percent of the population, respectively, in 2050. The aging of these groups and the increasing share of natives among them will strengthen the presence of Latinos and Asians in the pool of potential voters.
The Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) has identified 176 APIA members who were running in the November 2 elections. This organization played a major role in encouraging and training qualified APIAs to run for public office.
This year, among Vietnamese American candidates, eight lost state races while seven were elected. Van Tran, a Republican, was the first Vietnamese American elected to the California State Legislature, with 58.1% of the vote, while Hubert Vo, a Democrat, was elected to the Texas State Legislature, with 50.05%. Vo won by 38 votes and faces a possible recount. Janet Nguyen won a seat on the Garden Grove City Council in California; Lan Nguyen, Trung Nguyen, and Kim Oanh Nguyen-Lam, joined various School Boards in California. Phuong Tan Huynh became the first-ever Vietnamese member of the City Council of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, with 56% of the vote.
This marks a significant surge in the number of young Vietnamese-Americans seeking and winning public office.
Divisions persist. Dr. Lam Le Trinh from California described in his article “The Two Americas” a United States much more deeply divided in the 2004 election than in the last one. This year the gap splitting between Blue and Red states, urban and countryside, religious adherents and others, hawks and doves, and war and diplomacy is widening. The two candidates accused each other sharply on the war on terror, foreign relations, taxes, abortion, social security, scientific research, the economy, and moral values.
The 2004 elections helped fuel debates between candidates, parties and the mainstream population. Americans came out to vote in droves, more than in any other period in the U.S. history, especially among ethnic communities. Vietnamese-Americans were divided in their choice of candidates, but the majority sided with Bush, who won a clear popular and electoral vote. When the “vox populi” was heard, Bush was the winner.