California’s Los Angeles County, Cook County in Illinois and Queens County in New York have been ordered to provide voting assistance to Indian Americans.
Also, Hamtramck, a city of about 22,400 residents in Wayne County, Mich., will be required to provide voting help for its residents of Bangladeshi origin.
It is the first time that any languages spoken in the nation’s South Asian communities have been included in the language assistance provision (Section 203) of the 1975 federal Voting Rights Act.
The assistance includes translations of voter materials and ballots, absentee voting accommodation and interpreters at polling places.
The choice of which of the Asian Indian languages will be required is to be determined by the U.S. Justice Department, consulting with the U.S. Census Bureau, community agencies and local election officials.
The federal government has ordered a total of 248 counties and other political jurisdictions to provide bilingual ballots to minority groups who speak limited or no English.
That number is slightly less than a decade ago, after the 2000 Census, when 296 counties and jurisdictions were covered.
In Alameda County, for example, voter help must be provided in upcoming elections to Hispanic, Chinese, Filipino and Chinese voters. In Los Angeles County, communities receiving language-based assistance, in addition to Asian Indians, include the Hispanic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese and the Other Asian (not specified) communities.
The U.S. Census Bureau made the determination for the jurisdictions that needed language assistance.
According to Census Bureau criteria, language assistance must be provided “if more than five percent of voting age citizens belong to the language minority group and are limited English proficient” (or if more than 10,000 voting age citizens belong to the language minority group and are limited-English proficient) and, “using ACS 2005-09 estimates, the rate of total voting age citizens that are limited-English proficient and have less than a 5th grade education is higher than the national rate.”
Localities where Indian Americans constitute a significant share of the population, such as Santa Clara, Alameda and Sutter counties and counties in New Jersey, for example, likely did not qualify for language assistance due to a high English literacy rate, low rate of citizenship or not enough voting age residents, or a combination of all three factors.
“We’re ecstatic that more Asian Americans will be able to exercise their right to vote – and that the voting process will accommodate an increasingly diverse electorate," said Glenn D. Magpantay, director of the Democracy Program at the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Magpantay told India-West that the Justice Department directive is immediately in effect but that practically speaking, advocacy groups will expect election officials to aim for next year’s presidential primaries to implementation the law. He said the mandate is “very, very significant.”
Magpantay said he expects the languages in the South Asian communities to be Gujarati, Bengali and Punjabi. It will certainly be Bengali in Hamtramck.
In 1999, even before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there were reports of intimidation of Arab American and Bengali-speaking voters who had their citizenship questioned when they went to polling places.
AALDEF and other advocacy groups filed a lawsuit and the city later agreed to pay $150,000 to 15 U.S. citizens born in Bangladesh and Yemen to settle the legal action.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Magpantay said. “Many election officials do not understand their South Asian communities.”
He added that every right accorded to voters must be provided to the language-assisted populations. “We’re not done by any means. We will have to see how it goes.”
Magpantay said that when AALDEF monitored elections in New Jersey, where language assistance was provided at some polling places, there were problems with materials not being ready, voters being wrongly turned away from polling places and other issues.
With funding limitations and some localities having more stringent ID requirements in place, AALDEF and groups like South Asian Americans Leading Together will have their hands full.
SAALT policy director Priya Murthy told India-West that the language assistance “is welcome news” “We are looking forward to working with local election officials to provide feedback and to assist with outreach efforts.”