US Presidential Election 2012

Asian-American voters get election papers in their own language in US

New federal law forces 11 states to print election papers in languages other than English, but the move has not come without teething problems

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2012, 3:58am

Joshua Pajarillo stood outside Seafood City in Las Vegas, greeting fellow Filipinos in Tagalog and trying to get them to stop and fill out Clark County's new voter registration form.

Responding to a recent surge in Asian voter populations, Nevada and 10 other US states are being compelled by federal law to print ballots and other voting materials in languages other than English.

Other large jurisdictions making the move include San Diego County, translating materials into Mandarin and Vietnamese, and Cook County in Illinois, which is translating into Hindi.

But on that day last month, Pajarillo, a pastor, had a problem with the new form.

One man he tried to register did not understand some of the Tagalog words, so the two had to compare it to the original English.

"It wasn't written in words that people use every day," Pajarillo said.

Fortunately, the two men are bilingual, so using the new form was a matter of choice rather than necessity.

Su Nguyen, who works as a Vietnamese language co-ordinator for the registrar of voters in San Diego County, also ran into a translation problem recently.

The word for "registration" was initially translated using a term associated with communist prison camps. "People, when they see that word, it brings back bad memories," he said. The translation was corrected.

These are among the many challenging scenes playing out in the 22 cities and counties in 11 states nationwide where Asian-American populations have acquired new status under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Section 203 of the act requires ballots, forms, pamphlets and signs to be translated wherever 5 per cent of the local population - or more than 10,000 voting-age citizens - speak the same native language and have limited proficiency in English.

Other hurdles include translation errors that scare away or misinform voters or recalcitrant election departments not fully complying with the law.

In some sites monitored during the 2008 elections, poll workers "disparaged translated materials", according to a report by the Asian American Legal Defence and Education Fund, a national civil rights advocacy group. And different populations have different proficiency levels.

Only half of Chinese Americans say they speak English very well, while 92 per cent of Tagalog-speakers say they do.

As of the 2010 census, the 11 states with new populations covered by the law are Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Washington.

In Nevada, the Filipino population grew 142 per cent in a decade, reaching 98,000, or 3.6 per cent of the total population, in 2010. Nationwide, Asians are the nation's fastest-growing racial group, increasing to nearly 6 per cent of the population last year from less than 1 per cent nearly 50 years ago, according to the Pew Research Centre.

Some election districts have had to hire staff in the midst of budget cutbacks to comply with the federal law. The change also raises the question of whether translated ballots and other materials will help bolster turnout among Asian immigrants, who lag behind other minority groups when it comes to voting.

Election department employees, voting rights groups and community organisers alike see the law as an important step that inevitably leads to greater political participation, independent of whether the people in a given community actually use materials in their native languages.

"It is often a source of community pride and a signal that it is a large enough group for political mobilisation," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, who directs a national survey of Asian-American voters.

If Asian-Americans turn out next month it might favour President Barack Obama, since three-quarters of Asian-American voters are registered Democrats, according to a survey by the Asian American fund.

Glenn Magpantay, a director at the fund, was optimistic about the impact on voters seeing ballots in Asian languages for the first time. "Even if you speak English," Magpantay added, "having a ballot in your language sends out a message of inclusion."