Language access at polls a concern with advocates
by Deepti Hajela -
NEW YORK - The Flushing section of Queens provides a vivid display of the many languages of New York City: A church offers services in English, Chinese and Spanish. One business sign after another is written in Chinese. And on Election Day, voters will cast ballots in a Taiwanese community center.
Diverse cities such as New York face daunting challenges Tuesday as they try to ensure that signs and ballots are printed in other languages including Spanish, Korean and Chinese, and that interpreters are available to help voters whose English fluency is limited.
Some advocates of minority voter participation are concerned over whether election jurisdictions around the country will be adequately prepared to deal with the issue in an election that will have high turnout and waves of newly registered voters, many of them immigrants.
"I'm one of those people that thinks it's going to be a major, major problem this year, the scope of which we have never seen before," said Cesar Perales, president of Latino Justice PRLDEF, formerly known as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The federal Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions that have a certain number of residents who speak a language other than English and who have limited proficiency in English to provide all election materials in that language and to provide assistance such as interpreters.
Thirty states have jurisdictions that fall under the language requirements, according to the latest Census list, from 2002. That includes Florida, where Miami-Dade County must have material in Spanish, and Broward County must provide it for Hispanic and Seminole communities. In New York, the Bronx must offer material in Spanish; Brooklyn and Manhattan must offer it in Spanish and Chinese; and Queens has to have it in Spanish, Chinese and Korean.
In New York City, the Asian American Legal Defense Fund sued the city's Board of Elections in 2006, alleging that the agency didn't properly fulfill requirements to provide language help for Asian-Americans with limited English proficiency and that Asian-Americans encountered discrimination when they tried to vote. That suit was settled, with the city changing some of its procedures, including where it assigns translators.
"Everybody believes this is a better system, now the question becomes each year to make sure it works," said Steven Richman, general counsel for the board.