In addition to casting ballots for individual candidates Nov. 4, voters in California will be voting on Proposition 8, a high-profile initiative that would ban gay marriage, effectively overturning a May decision by the California Supreme Court. A study released last week reveals a surprising group of swing voters on the issue: Asian Americans.

The study, which is the largest of its kind in the United States, surveyed 1,900 likely Asian American voters in eight languages between August 18 and September 26. It showed that by a margin of 57 to 32 percent, the population opposed Prop 8. Asian Americans make up 13 percent of California's population, and 67 percent of them are likely voters.

In opposing Prop 8, the population, which might also prove crucial in the presidential election, is bucking its socially conservative tendencies. Experts are attributing the numbers to the fact that the voters surveyed see Prop 8 through a civil rights lens--one through which they also view both past and present discrimination against their own communities. "Given that Asian Americans once faced barriers to marriage based on racial restrictions, these findings do not surprise me," Janelle Wong, a professor at the University of Southern California and one of the study's chief researchers, said in a statement.

For their part, Asian American supporters of the ban have been quick to say that the civil rights approach to the issue is all wrong; it should be about morality. Gay marriage supporters "have very cleverly portrayed homosexuals as a kind of minority," Bill Tam of San Francisco, a Chinese-American working in the Asian American community to pass Proposition 8, told The Mercury News. "They've been very effective in portraying it as a civil rights issue, and this is very much a concern for us."

With the study showing that 11 percent of people polled are still undecided (a number that could be crucial, given how close the margin on Prop 8 currently is), it seems likely that Asian Americans will see stepped-up efforts both supporting and decrying the initiative in their local communities as the vote approaches. "[The study is] great because it provides leaders to come out," Tawal Panyacosit, the director of API Equality in San Francisco and part of the "No on Prop 8" campaign, told a local paper. "It increases our ability to outreach to organizations."

--Seyward Darby