Efforts are under way in Long Beach, California, to encourage Cambodians to vote in the US elections of 2016.
Community activists hope that getting more voters to the polls will help with pressing issues in the community, especially high rates of poverty and pervasive mental health issues.
“We are a powerful voice within the state and nationwide, specifically here in Long Beach,” Susana Sngiem, executive director of the United Cambodia Community, said. “The Cambodian community often serves as a swing vote for a lot of the elections, and what you see as a trend is that the Southeast Asian population is a fast growing minority group, and because of that we have a lot of potential to really utilize our voices to advocate more for the resources needed for our community.”
Long Beach is home to more than 60,000 Cambodian Americans, the largest community across the United States. A study by Asian Americans Advancing Justice LA found that 25 percent of them here are living in poverty. Many came here as farmers and fishermen and lack education.
Sara Pol Lim, former executive director of the United Cambodian Community and an advocate for the community, believes that Cambodian Americans now understand their role better and know how their problems can be solved.
“For those who have participated a lot in social activities and learning, and have become US citizens, they’ve changed a lot,” she said. “They have higher hopes and want to participate to get their voices heard. It’s an honor for them to vote in the presidential election.”
Participation at the city and state levels is quite significant, but it is still low at the national level, she said. Among the disadvantages to the Cambodian community at the national level, is the assumption by policymakers that Cambodians are among the successful Asian minority and therefore do not need much help.
That’s an inaccurate assumption, Pol Lim said. “Our background is from a war-torn country that requires us time to heal before we are able to fully participate in community activities,” she said. “Those who have achieved their dreams are still in small number.”
Earlier this year, voters from the Cambodian-American community here joined to support a healthcare bill, demonstrating that, when motivated, they can organize and vote. Activists hope to see that repeated in the next election, so organizations and associations are now working together in the community to encourage voter registration and absentee ballots.
About 80 percent of eligible voters have registered in the city of Long Beach, said Kimcha Huot, honorary consular general in the city, so more can be registered. “We have reminded our people to register to vote so that they can represent the voice of our community,” he said. “This is crucial to get the US government to pay attention to our community in Long Beach.”