The failure of state election officials to ensure a level playing field for all voters was amplified on November 6 when Korean Americans at one voting precinct site in Virginia were ordered by poll workers to form a separate line so as not to slow down the process for white voters.
The lines were re-integrated only after vocal protests from other voters who started shouting, “That’s wrong!” said Glenn Magpantay, Democracy Program Director with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF).
The incident occurred in Fairfax County, where a group of mostly elderly Korean Americans turned up at a polling station. Poll workers grew frustrated when the seniors — many of who have only limited English proficiency — struggled to give their names and addresses in English.
“At one point the workers said, ‘All the Koreans move over here,’ and they started processing white voters,’” Magpantay continued, because the poll workers decided, “(voting) would go faster.” Magpantay acknowledged the workers were overwhelmed because of long lines, but said their actions reflected a lack of proper training, adding the site failed to provide adequate language assistance.
Tram Nguyen is associate director with Virginia New Majority, which works to engage minority groups in the state in the political process. VNM deployed 186 poll watchers in Northern Virginia, Richmond and the Tidewater area on Election Day, said Nguyen, adding it was a call from one of these that tipped her off to what was happening.
“When the elderly Korean American voters showed up at that polling location and were unable to communicate, the poll workers were unsure what to do,” said Nguyen, “and, because of the long lines, I think they were feeling a lot of pressure, and so what they ended up doing — incorrectly — was setting (the Korean Americans) aside.”
Nguyen said under Virginia and federal law, voters are “allowed to bring in anybody they want” to assist with language issues but that many poll workers seemed unaware of that and other rules designed to help voters.
She said the lack of personnel fluent in Asian languages was a key factor for voter confusion, particularly when coupled with long waiting lines like those in Virginia. Last week, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors decided to establish a commission to investigate the reasons for the delays and disruptions.
For Magpantay, the incident with the Korean Americans recalled a similar event in Boston in 2004, when Chinese American and Vietnamese American voters were placed into separate lines. Unlike in Virginia, he said, the lines in Boston remained segregated “all day.”
Magpantay, who litigates voting rights cases, flew to Boston after that election to meet with the official in charge of the site. “She said, ‘I’m so sorry, it will never happen again.’ I said, ‘You’re right it will never happen again. We filed a lawsuit against you.’”
Under the Voting Rights Act, language minorities can have ballots printed in a language other than English if they meet certain numerical thresholds calculated on Census data. In Boston, the Chinese American community at the time was too small to trigger a Chinese language ballot under those provisions.
There are, however, other avenues that can force the issuance of a non-English ballot. “We were able to get there through a remedial action, to say, well, if you’re going to discriminate against minority voters, stop discriminating and translate the ballot,” Magpantay explained.
Though ballots were printed in Spanish in Fairfax County due to the surging Latino population, neither Korean nor Vietnamese Americans in Virginia have reached a critical mass through the Census to require counties to print ballots in their respective languages. Until those communities grow large enough, Ngyuen said more effective outreach and education of voters before Election Day are critical to alleviating bottlenecks at the polls.
She said VNM was among a number of organizations distributing information in Asian languages other than English. The Northern Korean American Service and Education Consortium targeted Virginia as one of 11 states to receive bilingual voting guides prior to the election, worked through Korean churches to promote voter education and, in collaboration with the AALDEF, also provided Election Day monitoring in Centreville, another community in Fairfax County where Korean Americans account for a fourth of its over 70,000 residents.
Part of the confusion on Election Day in Virginia was also driven by the state’s newly enacted voter photo-ID law, Nguyen contended. She said the nuances of the new law compounded the challenges for even veteran voters who needed language assistance. She said the state’s election officials made “no concerted effort to educate language minority populations in terms of these new laws,” describing their inaction as bad public policy that affects voters regardless of political persuasion.
Houston is an example of where the success of Asian language outreach has contributed to greater voter participation. Ballots in Vietnamese have been printed in the city’s Harris County since 2002, though it took a court order under the Voting Rights Act to initiate the action. The community also benefits from an independent ethnic media presence.
“The election went fine for the Vietnamese because we had a lot of talk shows and promotion to inform our audience in details about every step of how to vote and get help if they needed,” said Thuy Tranh Vu, co-founder of Radio Saigon Houston.
Vietnamese Americans in other cities were less fortunate. In Philadelphia, home to more than 14,000 Vietnamese Americans, AADELF reported that before Election Day, “Philadelphia officials said they had only trained four Asian language interpreters for the entire city.”
Similarly, an AADELF statement noted, “At three poll sites in New Orleans, limited English-proficient Vietnamese American voters, many of whom were senior citizens, were told that interpreters could not assist them or otherwise translate the ballot for them, in violation of Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act. AALDEF attempted to appeal to local elections officials, yet the hotline number to report problems only led to a voicemail box.”
Along with Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the organization cited incidents in Georgia, Michigan, and New York as particularly egregious, though for different reasons.