By Doug Chin
Amid the outcry over uncounted and improperly counted votes in King County last November and the problems in the Elections Office, and while Democrats and Republicans were clamoring over counting every vote as the gubernatorial race tightened, there was progress being made over equal voting rights. Noticeably absent in the press, independent audit reports and all the County Elections Office bashing was the fact that nearly 1,200 Chinese ballots were cast the last election.
Compare that number to the less than 200 Chinese ballots cast two years earlier in the General Election. It would have surely made Rev. Martin Luther King — who stood for equality, who was instrumental in the passage of the Federal Voting Rights Act and for whom our county is named — smile.
Clearly, while many were talking about making every vote count, a substantial number of Chinese American citizens with limited proficiency in the English language, were being provided an even more fundamental right — equal access or opportunity to vote because Chinese language assistance and ballots were provided for them.
King County, under the provisions of Section 203 of the Federal Voting Rights Act, is required to provide language assistance to the more than 10,000 Limited English Speaking Chinese in the area eligible to vote, and to provide voter registration and election material in Chinese. The requirement to provide language assistance and material in Chinese, of course, is to provide equal access or opportunity to vote.
To his credit, King County Director of Elections and Licensing Dean Logan embraced this requirement and made compliance with the language provision a top priority the moment he was hired. Moreover, Logan and his staff maintained an active working relationship with Chinese and Asian Pacific Islander community groups on what the County needed to do to comply with Section 203 language assistance requirements. These groups, which include the Organization of Chinese Americans, Chinese Information and Service Center, Japanese American Citizens League, and Rising Our APIA Representation (ROAR), not only advise the Elections staff on translations and the best ways to reach and provide language assistance to the limited English proficiency Chinese, but also recruit community members to volunteer their services to register new voters, monitor polls, and provide language assistance at the polls.
In the last two years, the Elections Office has produced an impressive array of elections material in Chinese, including voter registration, ballots, signs and posters. To help reach the Chinese population, the Elections Office sent a bilingual mailing to some 20,000 registered voters in the County with Chinese surnames, notifying them of the availability of ballots in Chinese. In addition, the Office incorporated in its training to poll workers information about the requirement and accessibility of Chinese language assistance, and actually provides Chinese language interpreters at selected poll sites in the County. The Office regularly does outreach to register new voters and has bilingual Web pages on its Web site.
The County provides language assistance to other ethnic groups as well. Besides supplying voter material in Chinese, the Elections Office provides voter registration forms in other languages to other ethnic groups with substantial immigrants including Russian, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and Somali.
No less important to the progress and success of the language assistance efforts of the County’s Election Office was the selection of Colleen Kwan as the Minority Language Coordinator to design and implement the program. Kwan, who already had a reputation in the Chinese community as an competent volunteer, has proved to an energetic and able leader who eats and sleeps voter registration to citizens with limited English language ability, even on weekends. As a testament of her knowledge and abilities, she was called by the State Department to provide advice to leaders in China who are developing their first electoral process in townships.
While there are many who question the integrity and proficiency of the leadership and the County’s Elections Office, we have nothing but praise for their campaign to register and get Chinese — and others whose English language ability is limited — to vote or, otherwise, participate in democracy.
The Voting Rights Act, incidentally, is due to expired in 2007. It’s time to start the discussion to renew, if not strengthen, this crucial civil rights measure so that everyone who has the right to vote, gets an equal opportunity to so, and to get his or her vote counted.
Furthermore, we must oppose Initiative 313, an anti-voting rights measure aimed at immigrants that has just been filed in Washington State. If passed, this regressive initiative would require voters to provide proof of citizenship, a telephone number, occupation, former residence and evidence. Consequently, immigrants and refugees, many who are already fearful or suspicious of government, would be discouraged from voting.
King County Elections Office has made a great leap forward in providing equal voting rights for our immigrants with limited English proficiency. Let’s applaud the Office for its effort and help them to do even more to afford everyone an equal opportunity to vote, and to get their vote counted.
Doug Chin is the president of the Greater Seattle Chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a national organization dedicated to advancing the social, political and economic well being of Asian Pacific Americans.