The Asian (& Sikh) American Vote

This afternoon, I attended and spoke at a public forum and discussion organized by our friends at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) entitled The Asian American Vote in New York. The Sikh Coalition has been a co-sponsor of AALDEF’s voting rights project for the last several years, and we have helped to monitor the polls and conduct exit surveys of voters in heavily Punjabi and Sikh neighborhoods like Richmond Hill, New York.

At today’s event, AALDEF presented the results of 8,771 surveys of Asian American voters we conducted in NYC on Election Day 2008 (16,665 Asian American voters were surveyed nationally). You can check out the full results and the key finding of these surveys here.

One important finding that we discussed is the high percentage of limited English proficient voters from diverse Asian communities who often faced barriers when they went to vote. According to AALDEF,

Thirty-nine percent (39%) of respondents in New York were limited English proficient (LEP). Among native Korean speakers in Queens, 75% were LEP and 29% preferred to vote with assistance. Among native Chinese speakers in Manhattan’s Chinatown, 61% were LEP and 36% preferred to vote with language assistance. For native Bengali speakers, 50% in Brooklyn and 37% in Queens were LEP. For native Urdu speakers, 39% in Brooklyn and 22% in Queens were LEP. Twenty-nine percent (29%) of native Punjabi speakers in Queens were LEP.

I talked about my observations while conducting exit surveys in Ozone Park, Queens (right next to Richmond Hill), including the reality that a lot of Sikh voters do not read or speak English fluently and would have benefited greatly from having a Punjabi interpreter present. While talking to Sikh voters on Election Day, it was clear to me that many of them did not fully understand everything while they were voting and were not able to communicate effectively with poll workers if they had questions or were confused. Currently, Punjabi is not one of the languages where interpreters are providing nor are voter registration forms available in Punjabi.

As a result, this week we, along with AALDEF and several other organizations, are sending a letter to the New York City Board of Elections urging them to provide interpretation services at key polling sites as well as translated registration forms in not only Punjabi, but also Urdu, Bengali, and Gujurati (all languages which are currently not provided). This simple change would make a huge difference to South Asian immigrant communities and break down barriers for immigrants to vote.

Unfortunately, Sikhs and other Asian Americans still face discrimination and racism in the voting process. In the 2008 Election, one Sikh male voter reported that a poll worker in Ozone Park told him, “There are too many Singhs on the list, so all of you are going to have to vote by paper ballot.” In Brooklyn, an Arab American woman voter was told by a poll worker that she looks like a terrorist.

Our organizations will certainly continue working to make the voting process more inclusive of our community members and will continue building this movement for equal rights and social justice.

In the coming weeks and months, AALDEF is holding many other similar forums on the Asian American Vote throughout the country. See the list of events below and contact jyang@aaldef.org for more information.

May 22 – The New Jersey Asian American Vote
11:30 AM
Korean American Voters’ Council
144 Main Street, Suite 201
Hackensack, NJ

June 8 – The Massachusetts Asian American Vote
12:30 PM at Bingham McCutchen
One Federal Street
Boston, MA

5:30 PM at ONE Lowell
9 Central Street, Suite 203
Lowell, MA

June 11 – The Maryland Asian American Vote
6:30 PM
Montgomery County Council Office Building
100 Maryland Avenue
Rockville, MD

June 12 – The Asian American Vote (multistate)
2:00 PM
121 Cannon House Office Building
Capitol Hill
Washington, DC

June 17 and 18 – The Virginia Asian American Vote
June 17at 6:30 PM (location to be confirmed)
Richmond, VA

June 18 at 11:30 AM Aladdin Bookstore & Café
4305 Markham Street, 2nd floor
Annandale, VA

August 8 – The Chinese American Vote
Time TBA
OCA National Convention
The Westin St. Francis Hotel
San Francisco, CA

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