Oct. 31, 2006 – Voting rights groups are concerned that millions of US citizens with limited English proficiency could have problems when trying to vote this year.
The groups worry voters will either have trouble finding ballots in languages they understand or will experience intimidation and discrimination at the polls.
Some 60 million people live in areas required to comply with the "language minority" provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act. Under this law, hundreds of jurisdictions in 27 states are required to provide language assistance in the form of translation services or special registration forms and ballots. The protections apply if a single language group within the jurisdiction totals more than 10,000 people, or more than 5 percent of the population. Currently, this applies to Native Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the city of Philadelphia earlier this month for allegedly failing to provide tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking voters with language assistance at the polls in recent elections. The complaint accuses the city of failing to recruit and train bilingual poll workers; provide the same election materials in Spanish as it did in English; or accurately translate materials into Spanish.
Earlier this year, the DOJ also investigated several cities and counties in Massachusetts and Texas for failing to provide ballots in Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. The suit against Boston also charged the city with "improperly influencing, coercing or ignoring the ballot choices" of Latino and Asian American voters and treating them "disrespectfully."
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), a civil rights group, says they will send more than 500 attorneys, law students and volunteers to cover 150 poll sites in eight states, including Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois and New York, to "guard against the disenfranchisement."
"In recent elections, our election protection volunteers have identified egregiously mistranslated ballots, interpreter shortages that led to Asian American voters being turned away, and poll workers who made hostile and racist remarks about Asian American voters," said Glenn Magpantay, AALDEF staff attorney, in a statement.
A study of the 2004 elections commissioned by the federal government found that voters in "language minority" jurisdictions have "difficulty in navigating the electoral process" in languages in which they are not proficient.
Language-minority jurisdictions "tended to report more inactive voter registration, lower voter turnout, fewer returned absentee ballots, and much greater numbers of provisional ballots cast," according to the 2004 Election Day Survey conducted by the consulting firm Election Data Services for the federal Election Assistance Commission. The study was mandated by the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
Brenda Wright, managing attorney with the National Voting Rights Institute, cautions that enforcement of language-assistance provisions is an "ongoing issue."
"Anti-immigrant sentiment in this country, unfortunately, is a reality on the political scene right now," Wright told The NewStandard, "and I think it does result in some of these instances of discrimination and non-enforcement that you see."