By Prem Calvin Prashad
The move to the legacy voting machines caused some chaos on Primary Day, with a number of the relics breaking down or otherwise malfunctioning. Compounding these issues were unclear directives on the use of paper ballots and at times confusing poll site instructions.
The Asian American Legal Defense Fund sent 50 observers to polling sites in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, where they found incidents of non-compliance with federal mandates to provide language assistance to voters with limited English proficiency.
I spoke with Glenn Magpantay, director of AALDEF’s Democracy Program, on these issues and what the city Board of Elections should improve in order to comply with federal law.
Among the issues found by AALDEF’s observers in Queens, voting machines broke down at PS 131 and Thomas A. Edison High School in Jamaica. At PS 131, two machines were broken at 6 a.m. and, despite repeated calls to the BOE, a technician did not arrive until 1 p.m.. During that time, poll workers ran out of emergency ballots and at least 15 individuals left, unable to vote. Two voting machines broke down at Cardozo High School in Bayside and, according to AALDEF, “poll workers allowed voters to vote on ‘emergency ballots’ but then did not know what to do with the ballots.”
Non-compliance with the language accessibility portions of the Voting Rights Act is a prevailing issue that continued on Primary Day. Though AALDEF observers did not find a lack of translated ballots in Queens as it did in 2012, a few poll workers in the borough allegedly resisted using translated materials at their poll sites. This included the PS 234 polling site in Astoria, where the poll coordinator refused to post translated instructions on using the voting machines, AALDEF said.
At PS 85, also in Astoria, AALDEF’s observers noted a poll inspector who said that “all the idiots should learn English” rather than having the voting materials translated.
Still, Magpantay noted that “most poll workers are accommodating, trained and want to be helpful … but it is the actions of a couple of poll workers who do frustrate democracy and fairness.”
In addition, Magpantay said, “We are always concerned when any Asian-American voter is singled out or treated differently from any other voter …. Asian-American voters have been subject to additional identification requests.”
In response to the lack of ballots translated into Bengali in last year’s primary and general elections, AALDEF sued the BOE in early July for failure to comply with Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 203, which has been part of the VRA since 1975, acknowledges the need for voting materials to be presented in the language of minority groups that have been “historically excluded from the political process,” specifically Spanish, Asian and native American and Alaskan languages.
Jurisdictions with these minorities that total more than 10,000 or over 5 percent of the total voting population must have a plan to comply with Section 203 provisions.
The director of the U.S. Census Bureau made the determination after the 2010 census that Asian Indian language assistance must be provided in Queens under Section 203. In Queens, Asian language accessibility mandates include Chinese, Korean, Bengali and Hindi.
Though the BOE had formulated a compliance plan for Chinese and Korean language assistance, Magpantay said the plan for Bengali is unclear. When asked if he thought if it was possible for language assistance to be properly available at all polling sites in Queens, Magpantay said, “It’s the law, it must be feasible …. I don’t think New York is that incompetent. There are smart people at the Board of Elections and they should be able to get it done.”