Asian Americans report voting barriers and discrimination at poll sites in midterm elections

Tuesday, Nov 4, 2014

New York...Asian American voters, including new citizens with limited English proficiency and first-time voters, encountered barriers at polling places in the 2014 midterm elections. The problems included a shortage of Asian-language interpreters, missing names on voter rolls, poll worker interference, and improper demands for identification.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), a 40-year old civil rights organization based in New York City, dispatched 565 attorneys, law students, and community volunteers to 147 poll sites in 11 states with large Asian American populations. They recorded voter complaints at polling places and conducted a nonpartisan multilingual exit poll.

"Asian American voters had to overcome numerous obstacles in order to exercise their right to vote today," said AALDEF staff attorney Jerry Vattamala. A preliminary list of voting problems faced by Asian American voters on Election Day appears below.

Philadelphia, PA

-In South Philadelphia, Vietnamese American voters in need of language assistance did not have access to interpreters. AALDEF filed a complaint in April 2014 against the Philadelphia City Commissioners, contending that the city's Fair Practices Ordinance requires municipal agencies to provide language assistance. 

-At Reed Street Presbyterian Apartments, a limited English proficient Vietnamese American voter sought to vote in the race for governor, but a poll worker improperly assisted the voter by pushing the button on the voting machine himself. The poll worker also told the voter to vote "yes" on all ballot propositions. 

-At South Philadelphia High School, a poll worker refused to allow an Asian American voter to use the designated translation phone line, insisting that the service does not work. The frustrated voter left without voting.   

-Voters were misdirected and told to go to various poll sites, creating much confusion. One voter at South Philadelphia High School was told incorrectly to go to the police station to vote. 

-In Chinatown, voters complained that one interpreter spoke Cantonese very poorly. A voter asked the interpreter to identify the Democratic candidate for governor, and the interpreter pointed instead to the Republican candidate on the ballot.

New York, NY

-Multiple sites throughout the city had shortages of Asian-language interpreters. At IS 230 in Jackson Heights, Queens, Chinese interpreters had to assist Korean-speaking voters. 

-The federal Voting Rights Act requires poll sites in Queens County to provide language assistance in Chinese, Korean, and Bengali to Asian American voters not proficient in English. At a poll site in Woodside, one election district (ED) was missing Chinese-language ballots and another ED was missing Korean-language ballots.  

- At Thomas Edison High School in Jamaica, Queens, South Asian American voters were confused about the ballot layout, which made it difficult to vote for candidates who were endorsed by multiple political parties. The problem of overvoting led to several ballots being rejected by the scanner, and the lack of Bengali interpreters meant that voters did not understand how to cast their votes properly.

-Poll site changes in Woodside, Queens caused confusion, since many voters said they did not receive proper notice of these changes. When they complained, people at the Queens Board of Elections blamed the voters for "throwing out their notices." 

-AALDEF observers received several complaints from voters regarding missing names on voter lists and voting machine breakdowns at poll sites in Midwood, Brooklyn and Flushing, Queens. 

Detroit, MI 

-Thirty (30) South Asian American voters complained about the lack of interpreters.  At Transfiguration Church, several Bangladeshi American voters left when they were unable to vote because of their limited English proficiency.  

-Because of the lack of language assistance, several voters spoiled their ballots when they could not properly identify their candidates of choice. Some believed that the first question on the ballot was a test, asking the voter "Who is the current governor?" rather than "Who is your choice for governor?" Some voters inadvertently voted for the incumbent governor.  

Bergen County, NJ 

-The federal Voting Rights Act requires polling places to have Korean-speaking poll workers to assist limited English proficient voters. The Board of Elections apparently had no system to target bilingual poll workers. Korean American voters in Leonia, NJ had no one to assist them, except for one person who knew only how to say "How are you?" and "Thank you" in Korean. 

-In addition, the Help America Vote Act requires that all polling locations display a statement of voters' rights. AALDEF observers found that the federally-required signage was missing at two poll sites in Bergen County.  

Boston, MA

-In Dorchester, a duly-registered voter was told that her name was not listed in the voter rolls. Instead of offering the voter a provisional ballot, as required under both federal and state election law, poll workers told her to "go register and vote in the next election."  

Overall Lack of Language Assistance 

AALDEF observers found a tremendous need for more interpreters at poll sites in several states, including Vietnamese interpreters in Boston and Quincy, MA and Korean interpreters in Annandale, VA and Bergen County, NJ. AALDEF contacted these jurisdictions last summer, encouraging them to hire more bilingual poll workers to accommodate the increasing numbers of diverse Asian American voters.

AALDEF executive director Margaret Fung said:  "Our attorneys will fully investigate every voter complaint, and we will report our findings and observations to local election officials and the U.S. Department of Justice."

*     *     *

For more information, contact:
Jerry Vattamala, 212.966.5932 x209

Margaret Fung, 212.966.5932 x201


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