Volume 17 • Issue 7 / July 9 - 15, 2004

Voting problems reported in Chinatown

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Asian American voters with limited English ability often do not get the support they need to navigate New York City’s polling places, according to a report released this week by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Rude and unhelpful poll workers and inadequate translation services were among the problems highlighted in the report, based on observations at polling sites in Chinatown, the Lower East Side and other parts of the city with high Asian populations. Workers and volunteers for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund monitored 42 polling sites during the 2003 primary election and 70 sites during the general election that year.

At a July 7 news conference, one volunteer recalled how a poll worker yelled at an elderly Chinese man whose name the worker had difficulty understanding.

“It was a scene, and in the end that makes people intimidated to exercise their right to vote,” said Tung Chan, an attorney with the firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, who monitored three Lower East Side polling places last fall.

All voters have are supposed to have some English proficiency — only U.S. citizens are allowed to vote, and the citizenship test requires some English skills. But Asian American advocates say that poll workers are often more comfortable helping voters who speak English well and sometimes neglect or act impatient with those who are not fluent.

The federal Voting Rights Act mandates that bilingual election materials be provided in places that have certain populations of non-native English speakers. In New York City, Chinese-language materials are mandated at polling stations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, and Korean-language materials are also mandated in Queens.

But this assistance doesn’t always work the way it is supposed to, the report found. At some sites, for example, translated instructions were hung in out-of-the-way places or not put out on tables, and translators did not wear identification that distinguished them from poll workers or voters, the report said.

John Ravitz, executive director of the city’s Board of Elections, said the city has asked the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund to help on Election Day by phoning him directly to report problems volunteers see at polling places. But no one from the organization has ever called him on the day of the primary or general elections, Ravitz said.

“If there’s a problem, we correct it immediately,” Ravitz said in a telephone interview. “But they don’t want to do that. They want to sit on this information and release a report six months later.”

Ravitz said the city would nonetheless investigate the report’s charges.

“Our job is to remove barriers” to voting, Ravitz said.

This year’s presidential election will bring some new changes to polling stations around the country. Last December, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, responding to the mishaps that characterized the 2000 election.

For the first time this year, certain voters must show I.D. at polling stations. In New York City, this provision applies to about 66,000 people who submitted voter registration forms by mail after Jan. 1, 2003, Ravitz said. Affected voters have received letters telling them they must bring some form of identification with them when they vote, he added.


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