Cites Nearly a Decade of Violations of the Act’s Language Assistance Provisions
New York—In federal court today in Manhattan, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), along with pro bono co-counsel Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, filed a lawsuit against the New York City Board of Elections for violations of the Language Assistance Provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act.
The suit was filed on behalf of four organizations—the Chinatown Voter Education Alliance, Young Korean American Service and Education Center, Inc. (YKASEC), Korean American Voters’ Council, and Chinese American Voters Association—and five limited English proficient Asian American voters.
AALDEF Executive Director Margaret Fung said, “The New York City Board of Elections must stop ignoring its obligations to provide effective language assistance to Asian American voters who are not fully proficient in English. For over a decade, the Board’s erratic attempts at compliance with the Voting Rights Act have disenfranchised too many Asian American voters. This must end immediately.”
The complaint alleges that Asian Americans in New York City encountered a range of discriminatory obstacles in exercising their right to vote—as did other minority voters in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. Examples include:
- Ballot translations were too small to read, had faulty transliterations of candidates’ names, and layouts were misleading. In 2000, ballots in Queens flipped the translated party headings and listed Republican candidates as “Democrats” and vice versa.
- Interpreter shortages led to limited English proficient Asian Americans being turned away. Sometimes interpreters spoke the wrong dialect or language. Other times, poll workers blocked interpreters from assisting voters.
- Poll workers made disparaging or racist remarks about language assistance and Asian American voters. In 2003, one poll inspector segregated interpreters, denied them tables and chairs, and required them to stand all day long. They made voters pass through numerous, sometimes embarrassing, hurdles before being allowed assistance.
- Translated voting materials, such as voter rights flyers, voter registration forms, and affidavit (provisional) ballot envelopes were hidden or unavailable to voters. Translated signs such as voting instructions were hung in obscure locations, if at all.
- Poll workers were poorly trained in their responsibilities, or even outright refused, to make language assistance available to voters. One called translated voting materials “clutter.”
- Poor and ineffective notice of election district and poll site changes led to confusion. Poll workers misdirected voters to new locations that were incorrect. Voters could not find their correct voting locations because telephone hotlines did not provide assistance in both dialects of Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), as well as in Korean, and the Board’s website and poll site locator was only available in English.
- Poor publicity and the Board’s system to target language assistance failed to ensure that voters who needed assistance would receive it.
These incidents, collected during every Primary and General election in 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and other years, were reported to the Board of Elections through complaint letters, meetings, public hearings, and telephone complaints.
“Instead of comprehensive compliance and reforms under the Voting Rights Act, the Board of Elections has responded with isolated band-aid fixes. Forty years after the historic passage of the Voting Rights Act, minority voters are still fighting for the right to vote,” said AALDEF Staff Attorney Glenn Magpantay.
Specifically, AALDEF and Weil Gotshal filed the suit to enforce Sections 203 and 208 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 203 requires the translation of almost all election-related materials, voter notices and publicity, and assistance at poll sites. Section 203 covers Chinese in New York, Kings, and Queens counties and Korean in Queens. Section 208 allows voters to receive assistance by persons of their choice who may also enter the voting booth with voters to translate.
The complaint also alleges that federal observers sent by the U.S. Department of Justice since 1991, under Sections 6-9 of the Voting Rights Act, will corroborate many of the Section 203 and 208 violations AALDEF documented.
According to AALDEF’s 2004 exit poll survey of 7,247 Asian American voters in New York City, 46% of Asian Americans expressed that they were limited English proficient. Among Chinese American voters, 56% were limited English proficient and 37% needed language assistance to vote. Among Korean American voters, 65% were limited English proficient and 42% needed language assistance to vote.