Eugene Lee is the Voting Rights Project Director at Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. Deanna Kitamura is a senior staff attorney at Advancing Justice-Los Angeles.
As the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, Asian Americans are an increasingly critical population of voters. Nearly four million Asian Americans voted in the 2012 election, representing a 16 percent increase from those who voted in 2008, and a 91 percent increase from those who voted in 2000.
And like other communities of color, Asian Americans have faced and continue to face barriers to voting. For example, until the mid-20th century, foreign-born Asian Americans were flat out denied the right to vote because of restrictions on their ability to naturalize as U.S. citizens.
Even now, Asian Americans encounter discriminatory behavior at the polls. During the 2012 presidential election, Hmong American voters in Minnesota were incorrectly asked to provide identification, even though a white voter standing in line behind them was not. For Asian Americans today, another particular brand of vote denial arises when they are unable to access the language assistance to which they are entitled under law.
Last month, Asian Americans Advancing Justice released a report detailing Asian American voters’ access to language assistance in 2012. The (http://advancingjustice.org/publication/section-203-voices-democracy-report-2012) report also highlights ways election administrators effectively, or ineffectively, provided voters with language assistance. Language assistance for voters is required by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, and it is critically important to the ability of many Asian Americans to exercise their fundamental right to vote. Notably, about a third of Asian Americans have a limited ability to speak or read English, creating a barrier to their ability to vote.
Section 203 requires local jurisdictions to provide language assistance when the language minority population reaches a certain size and its English ability and literacy rate is low. It further requires that voter registration and election materials be printed in the appropriate language and that bilingual services are available at targeted precincts.
Twenty-two counties and cities must provide assistance in at least one Asian language. These jurisdictions are spread across 11 states: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Texas and Washington. The Asian languages provided are Bangla, Chinese, Filipino/Tagalog, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese.
There is concrete evidence that Asian American voters benefit from such language assistance. For example, voter registration among Filipino Americans in San Diego County rose more than 20 percent after a lawsuit brought the county into compliance with Section 203. And Vietnamese American voter registration increased by 40 percent when San Diego County voluntarily began providing language assistance in Vietnamese.
At the same time, we know that language assistance is not provided evenly across jurisdictions or, in some cases, even at all. This is reflected in Advancing Justice’s report, which was based on discussions with election officials and a national poll monitoring effort in 2012 that sent trained volunteers to nearly 900 precincts in 14 counties and cities across the country.
Advancing Justice’s poll monitors discovered that, although elections officials are attempting to comply with Section 203, many fall short.
For example, in 43 percent of the precincts monitored, translated election materials were either missing or poorly displayed. At some sites, poll workers were unwilling to properly display the materials even after being asked to do so.
In nearly all monitored jurisdictions, some assigned bilingual poll workers were missing. The national average “no show” rate was 23 percent. However, a high of 45 percent was observed in two jurisdictions. In precincts with bilingual workers, 43 percent did not display signs indicating their presence and only 35 percent of those workers actively approached voters.
The good news is that elections officials can learn from jurisdictions that performed well. Based on our poll monitoring, Advancing Justice has developed a list of best practices that community groups can use to advocate for better language assistance:
•Fully translating the jurisdiction’s website, including forms;
• Ensuring that poll workers are trained and understand the importance of displaying translated signs and voting materials;
•Training bilingual poll workers to actively approach voters; and
• Increasing the number of bilingual poll workers in the reserve pool to fill unanticipated gaps at the poll sites.
We urge advocates and elections officials to see Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act as a way to activate a diverse array of new voters, and to use our report as a tool to make sure that voters actually get the assistance to which they are entitled.
As we reflect upon the ongoing battles to win racial equality, it is important to remember that the struggles of all communities of color are connected. And we should remember that, when it comes to democracy, the Voting Rights Act protects the ability of all communities to have their voices heard. Accordingly, we must endeavor to restore its vitality, while securing compliance with the provisions that remain in place.