Language creates barriers to voting
One in 3 Asian-Americans speaks limited English, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. From Bengali to Tagalog, their native tongues and dialects are numerous and varied. This can thwart prospective voters from reading or filling out a ballot.
“We’re talking about many, many, many different languages, many different cultures, many different experiences with voting and political processes,” said Sundrop Carter, director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. “Even people who maybe do their day-to-day business in English don’t feel completely comfortable doing something as important as voting in a second language.”
The national Voting Rights Act has two clauses designed to protect minority language voters. The first, Section 203, requires that voting divisions translate their ballots when their population has more than 5 percent or 10,000 limited-English speakers who share the same native tongue. Currently, only 22 counties or cities in the U.S. meet that requirement for any Asian language.
Another minority protection in the voting law, Section 208, allows voters to bring translators into a voting booth with them. But this isn’t always allowed. Jerry Vattamala, director of the Democracy Program at Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, said it’s not uncommon for his office to hear about poll workers refusing to allow translators into the booths. The U.S. Department of Justice has sued 12 counties for violating Section 208 since 1998.
Asian-Americans are part of the rapidly changing demographics of U.S. cities. For example, between 1990 and 2010, Philadelphia’s white population fell by a third – the Hispanic and Asian populations have filled that gap. Between 2000 and 2010, Philadelphia’s Asian-American population grew around 40 percent. Today, they make up 7 percent of the city.
Pockets of Asian-Americans have sprouted up in areas that used to be predominantly white. Former residents of industrial Chinatown, priced out by gentrification, have spread out. Ethnic grocery stores and Vietnamese bakeries have cropped up along Washington Avenue, a southern strip that runs the width of the city.
As the immigrant population grows, Philadelphia officials are trying to meet their needs at the polls. Spanish translation is federally required at Philadelphia’s polls, and the city will provide translators for other languages if polling places find translators willing to do the work.
In the 2016 primaries, the city hired and trained 41 Asian-language translators. But city officials say that the low pay – $105 max for a 13-hour day – doesn’t provide much incentive.
The city also has a phone-in translation service available to second-language citizens who need help with any government interaction. At voting booths, instruction cards tell people how to reach the language hotline. But advocates said those language cards aren’t always present, or that poll workers aren’t always trained to refer the hotline to second-language voters.
City Commissioner Lisa Deeley, one of three Philadelphia officials who oversees voting in the city, wants the city to require language translation cards at every polling place. The cards are currently translated into more than 20 languages.
“There’s an election every six months in Philadelphia. We need to make sure that everybody is taking advantage of their right to vote – whether it’s in English or Chinese or Vietnamese,” Deeley said. “Residents who need assistance should be able to get it with as much ease as possible.”
Vang, the student from St. Paul, said language issues go beyond translation. Directly translating words such as “president” and “democracy” into Hmong can seem impolite and harsh.
“Words that have a relation to politics sound very, very powerful. … It sounds like something you should never talk about,” she said. “You can’t just say those specific words in Hmong and not get away (without) an argument or something like that.”
About half of the citizens who speak Hmong in St. Paul speak English “less than very well,” according to U.S. Census data. These limited-English voters, like Wang Mua, Yolanda Loura, Nou Moua and Yer Yang, rely on translators, who are federally required in St. Paul, to help them vote.
Each of the four women said they vote every time there’s a presidential election.
Behind the row of food stands at the annual Fourth of July weekend Hmong festival, these women sliced fruit in a circle amid smoke from nearby grills. To communicate with English speakers, they relied on translator Kaohly Her.
“Society does not find any value in us anymore because we are old, and we are useless, but we can still vote and our voice still matters,” they said through Her. “‘We fought our way to this country, we made it here and this is the least we can do.’”
Although a translator may help them read the ballot at the polls, the service doesn’t necessarily help them prepare. This election, for example, the women said they were planning to vote for President Barack Obama.
“They don’t always get the information that they need in a way that they can process the information,” Her said. “They rely a lot on the rest of us who do speak the language to be able to tell them.”