AALDEF Complaint to DOJ: Voting Rights Violations in Queens City Council District
New York, NY … The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) has submitted a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice, urging it to commence an investigation of the 2009 New York City Council election in District 19 and to appoint federal observers to deter future discriminatory conduct and intimidation in this Queens district.
AALDEF found that Asian American voters and volunteers for candidate Kevin Kim’s campaign for City Council were racially targeted and harassed, in violation of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Some were physically threatened and assaulted. Korean American voters also faced racially discriminatory application of election procedures by New York City Board of Elections officials and were given limited access to Korean language assistance, which is mandated in Queens County under the VRA. In past years, AALDEF has monitored several elections in New York City and found numerous violations of the language assistance provisions of the VRA and Help America Vote Act, as well as other barriers to voting for Asian Americans.
Early in the 2009 campaign, the New York City Police Department investigated a hate crime committed by individuals supporting Dan Halloran, a white candidate in District 19. A large group of white male teenagers verbally harassed and physically threatened two Korean American volunteers. The group of white males used racial slurs and made disparaging comments about their Korean ethnicity, chanting “White Power!” and “White Supremacy!” One of the white males assaulted a Korean American, injuring the volunteer’s hand.
Supporters of Kim also reported that their property was vandalized. One resident of District 19 found her Kim campaign lawn sign was set on fire.
Moreover, non-Asian supporters for Kim were targeted. At a poll site in Whitestone, Queens, a Metropolitan Transit Authority employee in uniform ripped apart campaign signs for Kim. He yelled at a white female volunteer for Kim saying, “Why would you support the locusts?”, referring to Asian Americans in his community. When asked to stop, the MTA employee threatened her with violence and said, “Well if it keeps my community white…I’m going to punch you in the face.”
AALDEF also discovered campaigners for Halloran made racial appeals:
-Residents in District 19 received mailers with Kim’s face edited over a picture of Main Street, Flushing in District 20. The picture of Chinese and Korean business signs exploited xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiments among the residents of District 19.
-At one poll site on Election Day, a white campaigner for Halloran told voters that “Halloran’s opponent is some Chinese guy,” even though Kim is Korean American. He complained that the “neighborhood is getting really Asian. Chinese people are taking over” and urged them to support Halloran.
Election procedures were applied in a racially discriminatory manner against Korean American voters in District 19, and there was limited access to Korean language assistance on Election Day:
-At a poll site in Flushing, Queens, a Republican New York City Election Commissioner, Judith Stupp, racially targeted and confiscated palm cards from Korean Åmerican voters entering the site. She did not take palm cards away from white voters. As a result, Korean American voters with limited English proficiency had difficulty voting for their candidates of choice.
-AALDEF monitors witnessed Commissioner Stupp block a Board of Elections interpreter from assisting a limited English proficient Korean American voter. The Commissioner then challenged the the Korean American’s eligibility to vote, even though his Korean name appeared clearly on both his ID and voter registration list.
-An elderly Korean American voter who was limited English proficient was told by a poll worker to go to a different poll site. However, the Board of Elections interpreter did not translate everything the poll worker had said to the voter. The voter was confused and left the poll site without knowing what to do. She was not offered a paper affidavit ballot. As the Korean American voter left, Halloran, who was located inside the poll site at the time, yelled at her to get out.
The New York City Board of Elections is mandated to provide Korean interpreters at selected poll sites in District 19. Several poll sites were missing interpreters in both the September 15 Primary Election and November 3 General Election. At one poll site, the site coordinator was so desperate to provide assistance to limited English proficient voters that a first-time voter with no previous training was deputized as an interpreter.
AALDEF Democracy Program Director Glenn D. Magpantay said, “These incidents are a part of a history of Voting Rights Act violations in New York City. All of these incidents, in the totality of circumstances, deny Korean Americans the right to vote.”
AALDEF complained about these incidents to the Board of Elections in a letter sent on December 8, 2009. Moreover, AALDEF has repeatedly written to the Board about Election Day problems in numerous letters in previous years.
The incidents in the District 19 City Council elections in 2009 violated both the Voting Rights Act and settlement agreement with the New York City Board of Elections in Chinatown Voter Education Alliance v. Ravitz. AALDEF has urged the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate these incidents and to appoint federal observers in future elections to ensure Korean Americans can participate fully and equally in the electoral franchise.