Margaret Fung’s Guest Column: Voter Identification Laws are Discriminatory and Should be Abolished
New York Daily News – A Texas law requiring voters to show identification at the polls was the subject of a hearing two years ago. This new voter ID requirement would create hardships for Asian Americans, whose birth names are sometimes translated differently on various official documents, according to testimony by a community advocate.
Texas Republican State Rep. Betty Brown gave a startling response: “Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese - I understand it’s a rather difficult language - do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?”
Her message to our community was loud and clear: Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners, not real Americans.
Gov. Rick Perry, who last week misstated the voting age and the date of the 2012 election, signed the Texas voter ID bill into law last summer. The Justice Department has not yet allowed this law to take effect.
Thirty-four states introduced laws this year requiring voters to show photo identification in order to vote, and 12 states considered bills requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote. If these proposals are not defeated, Asian Americans and other communities of color will face new discriminatory obstacles to voting.
That is why the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) will join the NAACP and 60 other groups in New York City this Saturday, Dec. 10 – Human Rights Day – at the Stand for Freedom rally at the United Nations. The heart of our democracy is the right to vote.
In the 2008 Presidential elections, AALDEF sent hundreds of nonpartisan observers to 11 states. We received numerous reports of hostile anti-Asian remarks, such as the Brooklyn poll worker who said that all Middle Eastern voters “looked like terrorists.” A Sikh American voter, with the common surname Singh, wasn’t permitted to vote because election workers in South Ozone Park “couldn’t figure out which one he was.” And a poll worker in Flushing complained, “There are just too many Asians here.” Several Asian American citizens were asked to show ID at the polls, even in states where it was not required.
Over the past decade, the Asian American population has grown 46%, numbering more than 17.3 million nationwide. Asian immigrants have the highest rates of naturalization, and as they become citizens, they look forward to participating in our democracy by exercising their right to vote.
In fact, the 2008 electorate was the most racially and ethnically diverse in U.S. history, according to a Pew Research Center study. At a time when Asian Americans and other voters of color are more politically engaged than ever, it is disturbing that states would enact legislation to restrict the right to vote.
Not surprisingly, the two states that now require documentary proof of citizenship for voting – Arizona and Georgia – have also enacted harsh anti-immigrant laws. These voter suppression measures are premised on the faulty notion that non-citizens will illegally vote in elections, despite the lack of evidence to support these claims. Instead, eligible voters who do not have the requisite documents to prove citizenship will be kept from voting at the polls.
Historically, Asian Americans were excluded from the political process because they were prohibited from becoming citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act prevented Chinese Americans from becoming naturalized citizens – and therefore were ineligible to vote – until it was repealed in 1943. These bars to citizenship were lifted for Filipinos and Asian Indians in 1946, and for other Asian Americans in 1952. Today, the proliferation of voter ID and proof of citizenship laws will erect new barriers to voting for Asian Americans, replacing the discriminatory laws of the last century.
While the Dec. 10 rally is focusing on voter suppression tactics, we also seek full enforcement of existing voting rights laws. For example, the language assistance provisions (Section 203) of the federal Voting Rights Act would assist 19 million Americans with limited English proficiency in casting their ballots.
Section 203 mandates that jurisdictions with large Asian, Latino, and Native American populations provide bilingual ballots and assistance. Here in New York City, Chinese, Korean and Spanish-language voting assistance has been available for decades. For the first time in 2012, South Asian language assistance will be required in Queens County, as well as in three other cities.
These provisions are important for new citizen voters, who are active participants in our society but not yet fully fluent in English. Full compliance with Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act will enfranchise millions of minority voters across the country.
It is critical for all Americans to exercise their right to vote and have a meaningful voice in our democracy. We hope New Yorkers will join us in standing up for freedom on Dec. 10 at the United Nations.
Margaret Fung is Executive Director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.