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The Woes of Voting in Camp in 1942

In every election, the question of voter turnout poses a serious challenge. On innumerable occasions, the problem has been aggravated due to legislators’ attempts to restrict access to voting, often targeting minority voters. In the Jim Crow South, the imposition of poll taxes and literacy tests long served to prevent African Americans from voting.

Eighty years ago, in both the elections of 1942 and 1944, Japanese Americans confined behind barbed wire fences faced particular hurdles in order to exercise their right as voters. The problem was particularly acute in 1942. The Issei, who were legally barred from naturalization on racial grounds, were thereby excluded from the franchise. For the minority of their children eligible to vote – those who were U.S. citizens and 21 years or older - it was a matter of upholding their right to participate in elections.

Even before election day, Japanese Americans knew their voting rights were under attack. In May 1942, the Native Sons of the Golden West filed a lawsuit against San Francisco County with the intent of striking the names of 90 Japanese American individuals off the city’s voting rolls. The plaintiffs, represented by former California Attorney General U.S. Webb, hoped to use the lawsuit to overturn the landmark Supreme Court case Wong Kim Ark vs. U.S., which had enshrined the principle of birthright citizenship, and deport Japanese Americans after the end of the war. The case garnered support from the state’s conservative leaders, including then- attorney general Earl Warren.

Fortunately, in July 1942, following a hearing, Justice Adolphus St. Sure ruled against the Native Sons. The Native Sons then appealed the decision to the 9th Circuit court, which heard the case in February 1943. However, immediately after hearing the initial arguments of the plaintiffs, William Denman and his fellow judges summarily threw the case out.

In addition to facing challenges from the outside, Japanese Americans faced restrictions on their voting rights imposed by the confines of camp. In August 1942, the Western Defense Command issued a directive to the heads of the Army-run assembly centers regarding the right of Japanese Americans to vote in the 1942. In the memo, Col. Karl Bendetsen stated that the matter of voting in camp remained “between the individual and the state and county governments of their former residence. If the laws of the state of the evacuee’s legal residence permit absentee voting by citizen evacuees in their present circumstances…the right of fran­chise by absentee ballot may be exercised without interference.”

While the Army thus pledged to not interfere in Nisei voting, its leaders also instructed officials not to provide any assistance to voters searching for absentee ballots, thus placing the entire burden on those confined to secure ballots and have them notarized. California Attorney General Earl Warren, who was a candidate for governor, announced that Japanese Americans imprisoned in California camps could not register as voters in those districts where the camps were located.

Inmates at Tule Lake casting absentee ballots. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. 

After the Army transferred Japanese American incarcerees to permanent War Relocation Authority camps, the conditions for voting improved slightly. The WRA Solicitor General issued a statement to Japanese Americans warning voters that they would be unable to acquire voting residence in the region where each camp was located. Their previous home states on the West Coast did not make thing easier, by ruling that only those who had preemptively registered to vote before leaving for camp in April 1942 would be considered eligible for absentee ballots. And even then only, if by good fortune, a notary public was present to certify such absentee ballots before the deadline.

 Topaz Times, November 6, 1942

Nonetheless, some administrators helped Japanese Americans with finding a public notary to authorize ballots. One Japanese American researcher reported that the Legal Aid Department of the War Relocation Authority provided mimeograph application blanks for absentee ballots and notarization of ballots. At the Topaz camp in Utah, locals helped Japanese Americans to submit their absentee ballots on time. At Tule lake JACL leader Walter Tsukamoto, a licensed attorney thereby empowered to notarize documents, also helped confined voters with their ballots.

The question of voting by absentee ballots served as political fodder for the anti-Japanese press in the buildup to the election. On August 5, 1942, the Los Angeles Times informed readers that “many Japanese will seek absentee ballots.” In an interview with Registrar of Voters Michael Donoghue, the Times reported that “the Japanese are pretty well organized in their camps” and had been touch with Donoghue on how to secure ballots. The author of the article then asserted that if the average white voter was imprisoned like Japanese Americans, they would be incentivized to care about politics.

One letter to the Times on August 16 went so far as to accuse Culbert Olson of asking the Army to permit Japanese Americans farmers to return to work in the state in order to garner the Japanese American vote. Later, on August 21, the Pasadena News-Star declared that “one-third of the absentee ballots for the forthcoming primary election are being mailed to American-born citizens of Japanese ancestry who are now living in various reception centers.”

Other articles pointed out that incarcerated Japanese American voters outnumbered the number of soldiers voting by absentee ballot In the Mississippi newspaper the Hattiesburg American, the paper ran the provocative headline: “Find More Japs Than Soldiers Are Absentee Voters.”

The staff of the Manzanar Free Press took note of the publicity surrounding the request for absentee ballots. In an editorial titled “Passing Judgement,” the author initialed “T.U.” criticized the Hearst press for arguing that Japanese Americans did not deserve the right to vote, stating such an act would duplicate “the Nazi system.” To emphasize the legitimacy of Nisei votes, the author cited a supportive statement made by Superior Court Judge William J. Palmer, which stated: 

“All persons who are citizens and are qualified voters have a right to vote, and there is nothing anybody can do about it. That is our democratic system, and this is the system we fight to preserve. If these people are registered, are citizens, and have requested ballots, they are entitled to cast them, and that is the end of the matter.”

Nisei commentators sensed that the election would have little impact on the fate of incarcerated Japanese Americans. In the October 29, 1942 issue of the Pacific Citizen, Larry Tajiri proclaimed:

“Most nisei are taking a somewhat detached view of affairs and issues at home…isolated in desert relocation communities or relocated halfway across the continent on the bottomlands of the Mississippi, there are more immediate problems born of wartime pressures and exigencies.” 

Despite the grim outlook for Nisei voter turnout, Tajiri praised those who already “have gone through the rigmarole of voting by absentee ballot.” He also forewarned readers that the election would determine who would govern California and Oregon, presumably for the duration of the war. While the topic of Japanese Americans had subsided somewhat from campaign rhetoric following mass removal, Tajiri reminded readers that several members of Congress promised voters to “deport all Japs.” Tajiri mentioned, however, that an unnamed candidate, who had been the sole contestant in the election to openly defend Japanese Americans, had lost in the primaries to a pro-deportation incumbent.

When election day arrived on November 3, Japanese Americans in camp were reminded of their second-class citizenship. In the Manzanar Incarceration Camp, The Manzanar Press captured the morose mood of the day: “election day was just another day – another day of rising in the murky uncertain dawn.”

One inmate was quoted stating “Well, no matter who’s elected. It doesn’t make much difference to us -we’re shut in camp, and it won’t affect us.” 

The sense of cynicism was universal across camps: at the Topaz camp in Utah, only 268 out of 2133 eligible voters casted ballots.

Tamotsu Shibutani, a researcher working for the Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement study at Tule Lake camp, had this to say about Nisei voting rights:

“What, then, is the position of the Nisei in American democracy? If the Nisei are American citizens, why do they not have their full rights? True, some local officials are allowing the Nisei to vote by absentee ballot, but others are initiating court procedures to revoke this right.”

In the end, despite their unjust detention, hundreds of Japanese Americans managed to vote in the November 1942 election, using notarized absentee ballots. At the Gila River camp in Arizona, social worker Charles Kikuchi wrote in his diary:

“It was gratifying to see the long lines of absentee voters waiting for the Notary Public during the past days. If some of these things were more widely known, the general public would not consider the Nisei as disloyal [and] fit only for concentration camps.”

Kikuchi also observed that voting in itself carried with it a symbolic importance, adding “Most of the Nisei are voting merely to protect their interests in the right to vote.”

Japanese American participation in the 1942 election was not equal across the different camps. The Times News of Twin Falls, Idaho reported on November 3, 1942, that only 200 votes were cast by incarcerees at the nearby Minidoka camp. The article noted that the 200 absentee ballots cast for elections in Portland and Seattle represented only a small fraction of the 9500 individuals at Minidoka, but also pointed out that 2300 had left the camp for seasonal agricultural jobs. Several papers, including the Salt Lake Tribune, highlighted the high number of votes that came out of Poston camp.

WRA reports stated that out of the total population of 18000 incarcerees at Poston, over 4000 voters—a sizable fraction of the total eligible population—mailed ballots. Unlike at other camps, where the numbers of eligible voters were significantly smaller or absent due to the seasonal leave program, Poston had a significant population of eligible voters.

This, combined with support from WRA staff, specifically Project Attorney Robert Haas, and encouragement by block leaders, led to a significant increase in use of absentee ballots. For several weeks preceding the election, the Poston Chronicle ran several editorials calling for Nisei voters to submit ballots.

The Poston Chronicle, October 25, 1942

In the October 25 issue, an editorial in the Poston Chronicle declared that “the destiny of the Japanese Americans will lie in a great measure in the hands of those who are sitting in our legislative chambers when the Axis powers say ‘Uncle.’” Likewise, the paper announced that a notary public would be present daily until the day before Election Day.  

Voting patterns among Japanese Americans varied greatly. According to Charles Kikuchi:

“The Nisei certainly are not of one mind when it comes to voting. There are Republicans, Democrats, and what have you among them, just as in any other community of 15,000 people. Most of the Nisei seem to be behind the National Democratic administration in the war effort, although we do have many staunch Republican supporters that feel that the National War policy is not entirely right, and they want the Republicans to run the show.”

Throughout the West Coast, members of Congress who had maintained an anti-Japanese platform generally held their seats, apart from conservative Republican Leland Ford, who was defeated by progressive Democrat Will Rogers, Jr. Earl Warren would go on to win election as governor of California. Known for his vocal support for the incarceration of Japanese Americans, Warren used the forced removal of Japanese Americans as a talking point in his triumphant challenge to Governor Culbert Olson. Warren also promised voters that he would aggressively enforce the state’s Alien Land Law, which targeted most Japanese American families who owned property. Warren later became a passive supporter of Japanese Americans when their return proved inevitable in 1945. Despite authoring several landmark civil rights cases, he never publicly expressed regret during his lifetime for his wartime actions.

The Election of 1942, although a harsh reminder of their imprisonment, proved to be a trial run for Japanese Americans, who would later vote in larger numbers in 1944. Although most Nisei remained jaded about the nature of the election, it emboldened others to participate in future elections and convinced some to challenge the hypocritical nature of the incarceration.


© 2022 Jonathan van Harmelen

1942 election camps