Tag Archives: Ballots

Rahima Begum Wins AALDEF Lawsuit To Vote In Bengali

When the city of Hamtramck in Michigan goes to the polls on August 3,  Bangladeshi-American Rahima Begum will cast her vote for the first time in Bengali.

Rahima, 47, who lives in Hamtramck with her husband and two daughters is a limited English speaker like many in her Bangladeshi community. For years she struggled to understand the English-only election information that Hamtramck provided and relied on her daughters to translate the ballots when casting her vote.

Though Bengali is a minority language protected by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, and designated for language assistance provision in Hamtramck since 2011, it took ten years and a lawsuit for Rahima to win the bilingual-language assistance that was rightfully hers.

Rahima was a plaintiff along with Detroit Action, a grassroots organization that advocates for marginalized communities, in a lawsuit filed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) against the City of Hamtramck, over the failure of its former City Clerk to provide Bengali language information and assistance in compliance with the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

The complaint prompted a speedy resolution by Hamtramck City Council to provide Bengali language assistance for its Bengali-speaking electorate.

“It shouldn’t have to take a complaint to ensure people comply with a law that they have been subject to since 2011,” said Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, Senior Staff Attorney at AALDEF. In an interview she told India Currents that with the new decree in place, Rahima and other Bangladeshi voters in Hamtramck will now have access to translated ballots and Bengali-speaking poll workers in the upcoming primary elections.

The win was a relief for Rahima who told India Currents that many other Bengali speakers were unable to vote due to a language barrier. “I know first-hand how difficult it is to vote. Other Bengali speakers may not have children to rely on. I am confident that it will encourage more people to vote and participate in the democratic system.”

A formula to protect eligible immigrant voters

Hamtramck sits 5 miles from the center of Detroit. It is home to a diverse immigrant population from Yemen, Poland, and Eastern Europe, and reflects the changing face of America as immigrants make the country their home.

Over the last 20 years, more immigrants across the US are becoming eligible to vote – approximately one out of every ten eligible voters is an immigrant. A  Pew study found that the immigrant electorate nearly doubled to 23.2 million since 2000.

But many of these voters have difficulty communicating in English. They need access to voting materials in their own language so they can cast informed votes. Section 203 of the VRA was implemented to ensure that  eligible immigrant voters were not excluded from the voting process by their lack of English language skills.

According to the law, when 5% of voting-age citizens are limited-English proficient (LEP) in a jurisdiction, local election officials must provide election information in the minority language in order to help them participate in the voting process, and ensure equitable elections.

“The law has a numeric formula of 5% or 10,000 of voting-age citizens who are limited English speaking in a jurisdiction running elections, like Hamtramck,” explained Lorenzo-Giguere, “and Hamtramck met that formula.”

Bangladeshis, who make up 20% of the population in Hamtramck, made sure their voices were heard in the 2010 census.

“What local advocacy groups did in Hamtramck is that they mobilized to ensure everybody in the community filled out their census form and also to specifically write in “Bangladeshi” on their census form, not just check off Asian Indian,”   said Lorenzo-Giguere.

“So that’s why the Director of the Census-designated Hamtramck for ballots in Bengali. Once that designation is made by the Census it isn’t reviewable, except if the next Census shows they no longer meet the formula. Under the law, Congress has decided that such cities that meet the formula must provide election materials and assistance in that language because that is what the community needs.”

Out of four jurisdictions designated for Asian Indian language assistance by Section 203 – (New Jersey (Middlesex), New York (Queens) and Illinois (Cook – Hamtramck is the only one covered for Bengali.

But Hamtramck’s former City Clerk made no such provision for its Bangladeshi community.  The city had an English-only elections website for its English-speaking residents and did not offer Bengali ballots, or adequate numbers of Bengali-speaking poll workers or interpreters at its poll sites.

Race relations upend civic participation in Hamtramck

Even though Hamtramck holds the distinction of electing the first Muslim-majority city council in the history of the United States, and is recognized as Michigan’s most internationally diverse city with a foreign-born population that stands at 41.1%, underlying racism still divides the community.

“We’ve heard that certain city ordinances have been disproportionately enforced against the Bangladeshi and Yemeni residents,” said AALDEF. “The vast majority of people responding to citations – too much garbage in their garbage cans, or hedges being too high, or screened-in porches – are Bangladeshi and Yemeni.”

“Despite the fact that there were gains in the election of Yemeni and Bangladeshi City Council members, the white, non-Yemeni and non-Bangladeshi city council meeting attendees like the city clerk, city manager, city mayor, city attorney, and other city council members, still controlled the way the city and city elections were run,” said Lorenzo-Giguere.

Hamtramck’s public officials exhibited prejudicial behavior to thwart immigrants trying to engage in their civic duty.

“Live recorded meetings show that a white city council member told a Yemeni city council member to shut up. A couple of years ago that same white city council member was censured for physically assaulting a non-white city council member with whom he disagreed. Before that, he had made public comments that the City of Hamtramck was dirty because of its immigrant residents.”

“Although the election of Barack Obama as the first black President was historic, it didn’t mean that there’s no more racism in the United States,” said Lorenzo-Giguere, explaining why the city lagged in its compliance with Section 203.

Advocates described how discriminatory tactics derailed Hamtramck’s minority communities as they tried to navigate barriers to casting their vote.

When Bangladeshi voters turned to Bengali-speaking exit pollers (mostly high school volunteers) for assistance, white poll workers came out and called the police on the volunteer Bangladeshi exit pollers saying that they were intimidating voters.

“It’s quite frightening, I imagine, for high school volunteers who were there to help their community.”

Community leaders who tried to offer assistance incurred criminal liability while simply trying to help people.

“Limited English-speaking voters would not have needed help with their absentee ballots if Hamtramck had just complied with the law and provided Bengali ballots and assistance. The voters couldn’t know that asking a friend to bring their absentee ballot to the clerk’s office was possibly a crime because the notice was only in English.”

“There is tension between this idea of voter integrity and actual voting access,” said Lorenzo-Giguere. “Unbeknownst to them, they may be committing a crime. There is the appearance of committing fraud though that’s not their intention at all.  It’s troubling the criminalization and weaponization that’s asserted when people are trying to vote or help others to vote.”

In October, before the last general election, Detroit Action reviewed a sample ballot and identified poorly made translations and other language inaccuracies.  The former City Clerk confirmed that the sample ballot was the same as what was made available to voters as the official ballot.

Community groups like Detroit Action, Rising Voices, APIA Vote offered their assistance to recruit election workers, and to look at the translations, and they were declined.

“So in the face of all of those declined offers and for the voters who had problems because they didn’t have Bengali assistance at the polls, or Bengali ballots or materials, or a Bengali website to get  election information, there was a clear violation,” said Lorenzo-Giguere, “and the effect was that it suppressed voters.”

In a statement, AALDEF confirmed it sent a letter to the former city clerk, August Gitschlag, alerting the City to specific violations under Section 203, ahead of its 2020 special election to fill the late Representative Isaac Robinson’s seat of Michigan’s 4th House District (including Hamtramck).

But Bengali speaking voters continued to be excluded from City’s 2020 primary and general election process despite 10 years of Section  203 coverage.

After a year without any response to specific notifications of Section 203 violations, AALDEF filed the lawsuit against the Hamtramck; the City resolved the complaint by agreeing to provide Bengali language information and assistance and convening an emergency meeting to approve the terms of a negotiated Consent Decree on June 30, 2021.

Hamtramck settles AALDEF lawsuit and agrees  to provide Bengali Language Assistance

“This lawsuit was necessary to protect the voting rights of this growing population and to remove unnecessary barriers to engaging in our democracy,” said Branden Snyder, Executive Director of Detroit Action.

“We are pleased with the results. These are good community solutions which we hope can be replicated for other communities and in other cities, even where they aren’t required by the VRA.”

Going forward, the city of Hamtramck will comply with the Consent Decree for all future elections, and provide accurately translated election materials in Bengali, assign Bengali speaking bilingual poll workers and interpreters to its poll sites, and appoint a Bengali Elections Program Coordinator and an Advisory Group to advise its Bengali Elections Program.

“The right to vote is fundamental and cannot be taken away or restricted based on English language ability, said Sarah Prescott, partner at Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter which served as pro bono co-counsel in this lawsuit with AALDEF; neither organization sought attorneys’ fees for their work.

“With this Consent Decree, Bangladeshi American voters achieved progress toward equality at the polls,” said Lorenzo-Giguere. “It is an expenditure that has to be made in order to comply with the law. And if the result is that hundreds of citizens can understand and participate in the voting process, then it’s worth it.

Lorenzo-Giguere applauded Rahima’s role in the outcome. “We’re hopeful that this lawsuit, thanks to Rahima’s bravery, will make a difference.”

In the primaries coming up, Rahima can vote in Bengali to elect Hamtramck’s next mayor and council members from a slate of minority candidates.

Rahima’s daughter Farhana is proud of her mother.  “I remember when I first told her about the lawsuit she was very nervous. She is a housewife, and this is the first time she got to do something big.”

“Her smile when I first told her she had won she said, oh my goodness I helped with that.”

“Sometimes when you are afraid, take a step forward. Big change can happen.”

Contact AALDEF to find out more about protecting Asian American civil rights.


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash


 

American Democracy Is Not As Fragile As You Think

The past year has been less of a roller coaster ride than a grey fugue the country stumbled through, like a blind man negotiating a highway in the wrong direction. 

At the end of the year, after battling a plague and an economic meltdown, terrible uncertainty and a horrific body count, came the event billed as seismic and life altering – the Presidential election. 

The American public was entrusted with the task of choosing their next leader, someone who would lead the way out of the fugue and escort the blinded country safely across that killer highway to the right side. The build up to the election of 2020 felt cataclysmic: millions of us voted, according to our convictions, which were the strongest they’ve ever been. 

2020 has been the year, when voting felt like you were a contestant in a gameshow, where you had to choose between two doors – behind the right door was the way out to safety and bliss. Make the wrong choice and a trapdoor opens and deposits you into a dark, unending hell. No matter who you supported, the wrong door, according to your beliefs, was a hell trap.

Because of how important I felt this election year was, I volunteered to be an election officer.

After all the votes were counted and the theatrics over election fraud began, it occurred to me that my experience in my official capacity as an election officer gave me a special, grassroots insight into the process.

The process was as clean and flawless as a new born baby. 

It began with my online application. I was then required to fill in an application in person at our local government center building. My ID was checked multiple times and cross checked with what I filled into different forms. I was assigned a precinct close to my home, in my daughter’s old elementary school, and told to report at 5:00 am on election day. I was also required to watch a two-hour training video, since in-person training in the middle of COVID-19 was out of the question.

On Nov 3, at 5:00 am, before the birds began to chirp, we gathered in what was the school gym. Our chief was already there, and the ballot machines stood bulkily in a corner. They required a special procedure to be opened and two of us were assigned to open and activate them. A poll watcher was present and there were at least seven other election officers milling around, prepping the tables and activating the poll pads. 

To try to stuff those machines with fraudulent ballots would be the equivalent of performing a naked tap dance in a kindergarten classroom and hope no one would notice. 

The polls opened at 6:00 am and voting public began to line up at 5:30, spilling out the door into the chill of the morning. There was a festive spirit in the air – people were eager to cast their ballot and make their tiny mark on history.

What really sold me on the experience of being an election officer was how democratic it was. 

There was no bureaucratic hierarchy with the chief barking out orders. We were volunteers -many of the officers were my neighbors. We were ordinary citizens entrusted with making sure the voting process was fair and accurate. 

The momentous, historic nature of the task was not lost on us. We joked about how we would tell our grandkids we worked the polls in the divisive, fateful, 2020 election. All of us took turns at sanitizing the tables after people voted, monitoring the lines, handing out ballots, checking in voters and handling the machines.

Jyoti Minocha with poll workers at her precinct.

When I was checking in voters I realized many were neighbors I had never met. I also gleaned after chatting with my fellow election officers, that some had political leanings which were the antithesis of mine. 

However, whatever our political bent, we were there to work at making our democracy a success – our small precinct was a study in how  people with  political points of view which are about as compatible as a spark in an ammunition dump, are capable of cooperation, in a sane and sensible fashion to further a common good – the right to a free and fair election. 

After months of watching the meltdowns, vitriol and extremism on television, it was a relief to realize that the average American is someone like me, a regular person just trying to do what is right and leave a better legacy for our children.  

At the end of the day after the polls closed, we tallied the ballots with the machine count, and sealed them in boxes which would be sent to the county clerk. There was no scope for tampering: all the officers were present and had to sign off on the final count before the boxes were sealed. 

It was as transparent a process as could possibly be.

I know for sure I’m going to volunteer for every election, going forward. Understanding how the system worked made me realize how important volunteers, the ordinary, everyday people, with no axe to grind and no political connections, are essential to ensuring that this grassroots foundation of democracy is preserved.

 I discovered that America’s democracy is much less fragile than it appears to be. 


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Mail-in Ballots for All Registered County Voters

HISTORIC CHANGE: VOTER’S CHOICE VOTE-BY-MAIL BALLOTS ON THEIR WAY TO ALL VOTERS FOR MARCH 3, 2020 PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY ELECTION Over 940,000 Ballots Mailed to County Voters 

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, CALIF. – A Vote by Mail ballot was mailed out to every active registered voter in the County today as part of the new voting model aimed at encouraging election participation by making casting a ballot easier than ever before. 

There are over 940,000 active registered voters in the County and for the first time in the history of Santa Clara County elections, all will be mailed a Vote by Mail packet. That includes an official ballot which may be filled out and placed in the accompanying postage-paid envelope, which is signed by the voter for verification and returned to the Registrars’ Office. 

Voters are encouraged to check their primary election ballot when they receive it. Nearly 300,000 Santa Clara County voters are registered as No Party Preference (NPP), and their primary election ballots will not include candidates for President. NPP voters who wish to cast a ballot in the presidential primary can still choose and cast a crossover ballot for American Independent, Democratic or Libertarian parties. All requests for new ballots to be mailed must be received no later than February 25. The Green, Peace & Freedom, and Republican parties opted to not allow crossover voting. If voters choose to cast a ballot for the Green, Peace & Freedom or Republican party they must re-register with that party. Voters can re-register online at RegistertoVote.ca.gov

The new Voter’s Choice Act election model was adopted by the Board of Supervisors last year with a goal of making it more convenient for Santa Clara County voters to cast a ballot. In addition to giving every voter the opportunity to return a ballot by mail, there are improved options for voting in person as well, with Vote Centers opening throughout the County up to 10 days before Election Day beginning on Saturday, February 22. Any Santa Clara County voter may go to any of the 110 Vote Center locations to vote in person. Early in-person voting begins today at the Registrars’ Office located at 1555 Berger Drive, Building 2, in San Jose. 

Board of Supervisors: Mike Wasserman, Cindy Chavez, Dave Cortese, Susan Ellenberg, S. Joseph Simitian County Executive: Jeffrey V. Smith 

“This truly is the future of elections,” said Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey. “We have seen Vote by Mail rates skyrocket to the point where nearly 80 percent of voters – four out of five – chose this option in 2018. That figure was expected to continue to rise even if we did not adopt the Voter’s Choice model. It really just makes sense to send everyone a Vote by Mail ballot.” 

More than 7,000 Vote by Mail packets, also with postage-paid return envelopes, were previously mailed to military and overseas voters to ensure that they have enough time to return their ballots by the deadline. In order to be counted for the March 3 Presidential Primary Election, Vote by Mail ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day and must be received at the Registrars’ Office by Friday, March 6. 

About 22 of Santa Clara County’s new Vote Centers will open on Saturday, February 22, 2020 in locations throughout the County – a full 10 days before Election Day for any voter who wishes to vote a live ballot. More will open in the final four days through Election Day, with a total of more than 110 locations. All Vote Centers can be used by any Santa Clara County voter – voters are no longer tied to a single polling place. Anyone can also get a replacement ballot at any of the Vote Centers and utilize additional services such as registration, language or accessibility assistance. Vote by Mail ballots can also be returned to any Vote Center or to any of the nearly 100 drop boxes countywide, many of which are available 24 hours a day. The list of all Vote Center and official drop box locations is posted on our website at eservices.sccgov.org. 

The last day to register to vote in the March 3, 2020 Presidential Primary Election is February 18, in order for a ballot to be mailed to you by the deadline of February 25, and can be done online at Register to Vote. Voters wishing to check their registration may do so on the website at Check Your Registration Status. Conditional voter registration begins of February 19 through Election day for those voters that have moved into the county, need to update their address, or their party affiliation. 

Voters should complete a new registration form if they have moved, changed their name, or would like to change their political party preference. To register to vote in Santa Clara County, a voter must be a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years old, a Santa Clara County resident, and not imprisoned or on parole for a felony. 

For more information, including locations and hours of all Vote Centers, drop boxes and information about needed services, contact the Registrar of Voters’ Office at (408) 299-VOTE (8683) or toll-free at (866) 430-VOTE (8683), or visit www.sccvote.org. # # # 

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