Council Members and community advocates today announced the pending introduction of legislation calling on Congress to re-authorize provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to ensure continued protection of the franchise to all New Yorkers. On the eve of the 40th Anniversary of this historic legislation, speakers at the City Hall news conference cited the need for expanding Section 203 of the Act, which requires equal access to the voting booth for all citizens, including many New Yorkers who speak a language other than English at home.
“The Voting Rights Act, particularly the provisions of Section 203 requiring bilingual ballots, registration forms and interpreters, opened the door to the voting booth for so many New Yorkers,” stated Council Member John C. Liu, the first Asian American elected to the New York City Council. “To allow the VRA to expire in 2007 would be devastating for voters who registered in recent years and would deal a crippling blow to efforts to enfranchise new Americans in our vibrant communities. Renewal of this important legislation is critical to maintaining the integrity of the democratic process. Expiration would not only hurt immigrant communities, but would substantially reduce the political clout of our City.”
When Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act in 1965, it removed many barriers to minority voter participation by banning racially discriminatory practices, such as the use of literacy tests. This federal law was amended in 1975 to require bilingual ballots, bilingual voter registration forms, interpreters, and other language assistance programs a provision that primarily benefited Latino voters.
“The 1965 Voting Rights Act resulted from the blood and sweat of the Civil Rights Movement and we must not allow Congress to turn back the clock on the progress made by the millions of Americans who sacrificed so much to regain our right to vote,” stated Council Member Letitia James. “We must also stand in solidarity with our Latino and Asian sisters and brothers who struggled hard to ensure that the franchise is available to all Americans regardless of language or national origin it’s time for Congress to reauthorize the Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.”
“We must not allow America to return to the times of Jim Crow when poll taxes, literacy tests, and other barriers excluded many Americans from the franchise,” stated Council Member Charles Barron. “We must therefore support the re-authorization of bilingual ballot access and other central provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act so that all Americans are empowered to exercise their rights in the 21st Century.”
It was not until 1992, with the passage of the Voting Rights Language Assistance Act, that Asian Americans were covered under the language provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Passed with broad bipartisan support, the amendments to section 203 now require bilingual ballots and voting assistance in all local jurisdictions where five percent of the citizens are not proficient in English.
“In the 2000 and 2004 elections, Asian Americans faced an array of barriers that prevented them from exercising their right to vote. For example, in 2000, in New York City ballots flipped the translated party headings with Democrats listed as Republicans and vice versa. And in 2004 poll workers demanded naturalization certificates of Asian American to vote,” stated AALDEF staff attorney Glenn D. Magpantay. “The need for renewal of the Voting Rights Act is undeniable.”
The Act’s provisions for language assistance (Section 203) and enforcement (Section 5) will expire in 2007 unless Congress reauthorizes them. AALDEF is pressing for reauthorization of both sections and an expansion of Section 203 to increase access to the vote in jurisdictions not currently covered for Asian language assistance.
Council Members and advocates also called for modifications in the Voting Rights Act, including reducing the numerical threshold at which local jurisdictions would be required to provide bilingual voting materials. In New York the impact of such changes may include the implementation of voting materials in Bengali and Urdu. Currently, only Spanish, Chinese and Korean language speakers are protected under the VRA in New York City.
“Forty years after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the fact that we are even talking about the need for legislation to ensure full civic participation is disappointing. For a city of immigrants like New York, the bilingual language provisions of the Voting Rights Act are more important than ever. We must ensure that every citizen can fully participate in our government,” stated Council Member Robert Jackson.
Council Member Gale Brewer, Veronica Jung of the Asian Pacific American Voter Alliance (APAVA) and the Korean American League for Civic Action (KALCA), Young Sook Na of the Young Korean American Service and Education Center (YKASEC), Debbie Leong of Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA), and other community advocates also participated in today’s news conference.