The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)’s lawsuit against the City of Hamtramck over the former City Clerk’s failure to provide Bengali language information and assistance in compliance with the Voting Rights Act (VRA) has been resolved by agreement with the City to provide Bengali language information and assistance. The City Council convened an emergency meeting to approve the terms of a negotiated Consent Decree on June 30, 2021.
“AALDEF applauds Hamtramck’s speedy resolution of this Complaint, and its commitment to meeting the needs of its Bengali speaking voters going forward, which is especially noteworthy at a time when access to voting around the country is under attack,” said Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, Senior Staff Attorney with AALDEF’s Democracy Program. “With this Consent Decree, Bangladeshi American voters achieved progress toward equality at the polls. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires equal access to voting for people with limited English, as determined by the census, but that was not happening here for the Bangladeshi community. Under the local Census Information Center, this community constitutes over 20% of the city’s population.”
“I am really happy to hear that this agreement was reached,” stated limited English proficient plaintiff Rahima Begum, as translated by one of her children. “For many years I struggled to vote because I couldn’t understand the ballot and needed the help of my children to translate it. Not only would having the ballots translated and Bengali poll workers help me, but it will also benefit many other Bengalis who are unable to vote due to a language barrier. I am confident that it will encourage more people to vote and participate in the democratic system.”
Before AALDEF’s lawsuit, Hamtramck’s former City Clerk had failed to provide access to Bengali ballots, provide adequate numbers of Bengali speaking poll workers or interpreters, and had an English-only elections website from which Hamtramck’s English-speaking residents can easily obtain election information.
Hamtramck was notified of its obligations under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act in 2011 when the Director of the Bureau of Census announced that Hamtramck, Michigan was covered for Bengali language assistance. As a result, the City was required to provide translated ballots, voting materials, and oral language assistance in Bengali. In April 2020, AALDEF sent a letter to the former city clerk, August Gitschlag, alerting the City to specific violations under Section 203, ahead of its 2020 special election to fill the late Representative Isaac Robinson’s seat of Michigan’s 4th House District (including Hamtramck). Nonetheless, the City’s 2020 primary and general elections continued to be inaccessible to many of its Bengali speaking voters. After 10 years of Section 203 coverage, and a year after specific notification of Section 203 violations without any response from the former city clerk, AALDEF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Detroit Action, and Rahima Begum, a limited English proficient (LEP) Bangladeshi American voter.
“Hamtramck has a very large Bangladeshi American community, many of whom have low English proficiency,” said Branden Snyder, Executive Director of Detroit Action. “This lawsuit was necessary to protect the voting rights of this growing population and to remove unnecessary barriers to engaging in our democracy. We are pleased with the results. These are good community solutions which we hope can be replicated for other communities and in other cities, even where they aren’t required by the VRA.”
In this Consent Decree filed with federal court, the City of Hamtramck has agreed:
- To completely and accurately translate all election-related material, including ballots, information, instructions, and announcements, including their website, into Bengali.
- To assign at least one Bengali speaking bilingual poll worker to each of Hamtramck’s seven voting precincts and at least one Bengali interpreter will be assigned to each of the City’s four poll sites, including two interpreters at the Community Center poll site.
- To hire a Bengali Elections Program Coordinator who will coordinate all facets of Hamtramck’s Bengali Elections Program.
- To establish a Bengali Language Advisory Group which will provide feedback to the Program Coordinator and the City Clerk on the effectiveness of the language assistance and how best to provide election-related materials and assistance to the LEP Bengali speaking community.
The Consent Decree applies to all elections conducted by the City going forward, allowing for a reasonable time period to implement the provisions of the Consent Decree for the Primary Election being held on August 3, 2021.
Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter was pro bono co-counsel in this lawsuit.
“The right to vote is fundamental and cannot be taken away or restricted based on English language ability,” said Sarah Prescott, partner of the firm. “Our firm is proud to serve as co-counsel with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund on this important issue, which will hopefully allow more eligible voters to finally participate in our democracy.”
Both AALDEF and Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter decided to not seek the attorneys’ fees to which they were entitled, in the interest of directing Hamtramck’s resources instead to its bilingual election program to meet the language needs of the LEP Hamtramck voters for the upcoming elections.
A copy of the Consent Decree can be downloaded here.
A copy of the Complaint can be downloaded here.
A copy of AALDEF’s April 20, 2020 letter can be downloaded here.
AALDEF’s Section 203 Fact Sheet can be downloaded here.
For additional information, contact:
Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, Senior Staff Attorney,
Jerry Vattamala, Director, Democracy Program