Note: Originally published on New America Media on Jun 08, 2012 . This article has been re-posted with the permission of the author.
By Carolyn Hsu, Voting Rights Fellow at Asian Law Caucus
Our country’s civil rights laws strongly protect equal access to the vote for all citizens, but even today, this promise is still unmet. On Tuesday, June 5, the Asian Law Caucus (ALC) monitored poll sites throughout northern California to ensure that Asian American voters had full access to the ballot. What we found were a number of deficiencies at polling places across Alameda County that made it more difficult for voters, especially those still learning English, to cast a ballot.
According to the U.S. Census, one in three Asian Americans does not speak English very well, so language is one of the strongest barriers preventing our community from voting. When language assistance is provided, all citizens can meaningfully participate in the electoral process and have a voice on the important issues that affect their lives. Additionally, language assistance helps communities integrate immigrants into civic life. For these reasons, Congress enacted Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.
That section requires jurisdictions to provide language assistance if the number of eligible voters qualifying for such assistance meets certain threshold numbers, as determined by the Census Bureau. That language assistance must be provided both before and on Election Day, and it includes bilingual assistance at poll sites and such translated written materials as voter information guides, ballots and signage. Alameda County is required to provide bilingual voting assistance in Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese.
ALC trained poll monitors to observe elections operations in areas with high concentrations of voters who do not speak English very well. They found that a number of poll sites throughout Alameda County failed to display voting materials in the required languages. There was also inadequate signage indicating that bilingual assistance was even available in the first place.
Additionally, Alameda County experienced difficulty recruiting a sufficient number of bilingual speakers to assist voters at the polls on Election Day. The county is currently required to comply with specific instructions in carrying out its language assistance plans after the Department of Justice (DOJ) sued Alameda County, alleging that it failed to provide effective access to the electoral process for Spanish and Chinese-speaking citizens. The parties entered a consent decree, which required that Alameda County provide almost 720 Chinese bilingual workers at poll sites throughout the county on Tuesday. By Election Day, the county was not able to secure that requisite number.
In preparation for the November elections, the Registrar will again begin convening Language Advisory Committee meetings. Throughout the next several months, individuals from the community can attend these meetings to provide advice and assistance to the Registrar so it can better prepare to meet the language assistance needs of our community for future elections.
ALC will again conduct poll monitoring during the November 2012 elections, and is working in partnership with its affiliates at the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice to conduct this voter protection project throughout the country. The effort in northern California is made possible by the assistance of the Filipino Advocates for Justice (Union City), Family Bridges (Oakland), Lao Family Community Development (Oakland), and Asian Resources (Sacramento).
The Bay Area is home to over 1.5 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Counties like Alameda have a vested interest in ensuring that all its citizens, regardless of language proficiency, have the means to exercise their right to vote. Our democracy is at its strongest when we seek to enfranchise as many eligible citizens as possible. In November, many new Americans will vote for a president for the first time not just in this country but perhaps in their lives. Let’s make sure that every voice gets a chance to be heard.