December 22, 2020
Cities such as Malden, Massachusetts are working to comply with rights laws to accommodate a growing voting bloc
In 2007, Fiona Yu was looking forward to voting in Boston’s local elections for the first time – a year after she became a US citizen. Yu, now 60, had immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong where she grew up poor, and earned a high school diploma through night school in the US.
On election day, Yu went to her polling station in Allston, a neighbourhood in Boston. But a poll worker was confused about her new home address. As a recent immigrant, Yu’s English was limited and there was no Chinese interpreter. The poll worker did not let her vote, even though Yu had proper documentation of her new address. Nor did she give her a provisional ballot.
“If that happens to a first-time voter, I can see why they don’t want to vote,” said Yu, through an interpreter. “It was very discouraging.”
As many as 11.5 million US citizens have limited English speaking skills. To help them, section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires translated voting materials in jurisdictions with at least 10,000 eligible voters with limited English, or more than 5% of residents, and other factors. In 2016, about 250 jurisdictions in 25 states were covered under section 203, ranging from Los Angeles to counties in Mississippi and Kansas. Section 208 of the act also allows limited English voters to bring into the voting booth someone to help them.
In 2005, a Department of Justice lawsuit against Boston, in tandem with community advocacy, sparked language assistance voting reform. But as demographics shifted and more Asian Americans moved beyond Boston, nearby cities lagged behind during this year’s primary, with watchdogs reporting voting rights violations. And during general elections in November, the rise in mail-in ballots also spotlighted confusion among limited English voters, said Angie Liou, executive director of non-profit, Asian Community Development Corporation.
Now cities like Malden, on the outskirts of Boston, are working to comply with voting rights laws for future elections.
‘You don’t see the kind of intimidation you did 10 years ago’
In 2005, poll monitors in Boston observed that Chinese Americans with limited English were coerced by election workers when they cast their votes, said Karen Chen, executive director of non-profit Chinese Progressive Association. Polling stations also lacked translated voting materials and bilingual Chinese interpreters.
That year, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the city of Boston, alleging voting rights violations and discrimination against people of Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese heritage. Boston’s administration said the justice department lacked proof of the allegations, but the city settled the lawsuit in September 2005.
“There have been drastic reforms since the complaint,” said Chen, including bilingual Chinese ballots, translated voting information and training for poll workers on maintaining neutrality.
Since then, Boston has “done a good job” of committing to bilingual poll workers and translated voting materials, said Lisette Le, executive director of VietAid, a non-profit focused on Boston’s Vietnamese community. The city has “trained poll workers to be more respectful of voters. You don’t see the kind of intimidation like you did 10 years ago,” Le added.
Although not required by federal law, candidate names in Boston elections are now transliterated into Chinese and Vietnamese on ballots. An advisory board comprised of community organizations like the Chinese Progressive Association also works with Boston’s elections department on issues affecting limited English voters.
These reforms happened even though Boston’s Asian American population is not quite large enough to qualify for language accommodations under federal law. And in 2014 Deval Patrick, the Massachusetts governor, signed a law that mandates bilingual Chinese and Vietnamese ballots in Boston. The move followed years of advocacy from CPA, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Chinatown Resident Association, Dorchester Organizing and Training Initiative and other community groups.
‘We hope Malden can be a role model’
In Massachusetts, 12 cities are currently covered under the Voting Rights Act.
Malden, where nearly 23% of its population of 60,000 is of Asian origin, became covered under section 203 in 2016.
Elected officials are becoming more aware of Asian Americans as a voting bloc. During Malden’s last local elections in 2019, “more candidates were translating materials into Chinese and knocking doors at senior housing complexes,” said Monique Ching, of the non-profit Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition.
But during primaries this March in Malden, poll monitors from GBLS and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund still observed violations. Seven out of 10 polling sites lacked voting information in Chinese or bilingual poll workers.
For general elections in November, Malden made big strides, in spite of Covid-19 restrictions and the complexities of bilingual mail-in voting. The city was “willing to work with us and take suggestions seriously,” said Alex Milvae, a fellow at Greater Boston Legal Services. “We hope Malden can be a role model.”
Other jurisdictions across the country may also need to adapt to changing demographics. In the US, the number of Asian American eligible voters more than doubled, growing by 139% from 2000 to 2020, according to Pew Research. Naturalized immigrants drove the growth.
During spring primaries, AALDEF also observed similar violations at polling sites in Hamtramck, Michigan, which has a large Bangladeshi community, and Fairfax county, Virginia, home to a large Vietnamese and Latino community. For the general election, Fairfax county improved language access, but Hamtramck still had violations this November.
‘He explained things to people one on one’
To reach Malden’s Chinese American community, city officials worked closely with community organizations. They held Chinese information sessions online and in-person at senior centers and distributed information about voting. GMAAC created a social media account for Chinese speakers and a phone line for questions.
“It’s the best way to interact with community members. They know what the issues are. Ideally, they can give feedback when cities do translation,” said Jerry Vattamala of AALDEF. Translating voting materials is “actually not that difficult and doesn’t cost that much.”
For the general election, Malden used a professional translator instead of relying on Google Translate. The city also recruited more bilingual poll workers and hired an election worker fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English who has now become a full-time employee.
During early voting in October, Greg Lucey, Malden’s city clerk, went with a bilingual Chinese poll worker to a public housing community center. “He explained things to people one on one,” said Lucey. “I could see the comfort there,”
In Malden, every vote contributed to “phenomenal” turnout. Lucey said more than 70% of eligible voters cast ballots. Figures for Asian voter turnout were not available.
“I don’t speak English, so whenever challenges come up, it’s very hard to find help and communicate,” said Ai Di Chen, an elderly Malden resident who immigrated from China in 2010, at a press conference. “I was so glad to see that the city hired a Chinese staff person to help voters.”
But Chen added that voting was still a “difficult process” because candidates’ names were in English.
That will change next year. Gary Christenson, Malden’s mayor, this month pledged to transliterate candidate names into Chinese characters by local elections in 2021. “We want to create a city where all residents can thrive,” said Gary Christenson, mayor of Malden. “Improving language access, especially in an area as important as voting, is essential to that goal.”
Vattamala emphasized that it is important to continually engage Asian American communities, not just for presidential elections. Local elections happen every year “for school board, sheriff, prosecutor,” he said. Those positions have direct impact on day-to-day life.
“When we get it right, there’s a tremendous amount of engagement.”