South Asian Voters Sue NYC Board of Elections for Violations of the Voting Rights Act

NEW YORK (TIP): The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), on July 2, sued the NYC Board of Elections (“the Board”) for failing to comply with the language assistance provisions (Section 203) of the federal Voting Rights Act. On October 13, 2011, the Census Bureau announced that Queens County, New York was covered under Section 203 for Asian Indian language assistance. Translated ballots and language assistance must be provided in Bengali. But four (4) elections have passed and the Board has never fully complied with the law. Ballots translated into Bengali were not provided during the Presidential Primary Election on April 24, 2012; Congressional Primary Election on June 26, 2012; State Primary Election on September 13, 2012; and the Presidential Election on November 6, 2012.

Seema Agnani, Executive Director of Chhaya CDC, one of the plaintiffs whose group had been urging the Board to implement the new coverage, said, “The Board’s bureaucratic foot dragging has prevented many Bengali-speaking Americans with limited English proficiency from being able to fully exercise their right to vote. In New York City – as high as 60% of Bengali speaking residents have limited English Proficiency” Every other jurisdiction in the nation newly covered under Section 203 has been able to comply with the law and provide translated ballots since their Presidential Primary Election in early 2012.

The Board proposed a compliance plan with interpreters and other translated materials for the June, September, and November Primary Elections. However, there were too few interpreters at poll sites and signs identifying interpreters were often missing, relegating Bengali-speaking interpreters to sit in front of Chinese “Interpreter Available” signs. The Board should have expected that the growing Asian Indian population would result in the new Census designation. Mazeda Uddin, National Women’s Coordinator of plaintiff Alliance for South Asian American Labor (ASAAL) has encouraged the Board to accommodate the growing Bengali-speaking community since May 2010.

She said, “The requirement for Bengali ballots should have come as no surprise to the Board.” Glenn D. Magpantay, Democracy Program Director said, “Monitoring of past elections has shown that the level of assistance that was provided has been deficient. The Board has made many promises before. Now we want assurances. ” The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), founded in 1974, is a national organization that protects and promotes the civil rights of Asian Americans.

By combining litigation, advocacy, education, and organizing, AALDEF works with Asian American communities across the country to secure human rights for all. Based in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, Chhaya Community Development Corporation (Chhaya) – meaning “shelter or shade” – was founded in 2000 to create more stable and sustainable communities by increasing civic participation and addressing the housing and community development needs of New York’s South Asians, new immigrants and their neighbors.

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