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Testimony Before the New York State Senate Task Force on New Americans Regarding Electoral Access

Testimony Before the New York State Senate Task Force on New Americans Regarding Electoral Access

Thursday, May 6, 2004

Good evening. I thank the members of the New York State Senate’s Task Force on New Americans for holding this hearing on New American community needs, and for the opportunity to testify this evening on electoral access issues for immigrant communities. My name is Suman Raghunathan, and I am the Immigrant Voter Mobilization Coordinator at the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), an umbrella policy and advocacy organization for over 150 groups in New York State that work with immigrants and refugees.

The NYIC coordinates the State’s largest voter registration project, with over 217,000 new citizens registered to vote over the past several years. Over the past three years, we have recruited over 1000 bilingual poll workers to assist new citizen voters on Election Day through a unique partnership with the New York City Board of Elections. We also just launched a landmark non-partisan immigrant voter campaign – the largest in New York history – involving over a dozen immigrant community-based partner organizations that plan to contact and energize over 130,000 immigrant voters for this year’s elections for federal and state offices.

New York’s electorate is increasingly immigrant; tens of thousands of the newest New Yorkers are registering to vote annually, and are eager to participate in the electoral franchise – a source of great pride for many who overcame difficult obstacles to come to the United States. In fact, one in four New York City voters was born outside the United States. Forty percent of the City’s foreign-born population is eligible to vote and there are over 1.2 million eligible immigrant voters statewide. Recent exit polls conducted by Columbia University found two-thirds of first-time voters in the City were immigrants. It is clear that New York City and State’s electorate is being revitalized by immigrant voters.

New Americans face many obstacles to participating in our nation's civic and political system. These newest New Yorkers make up nearly one-third of the electorate in NYC, and are eager to cast votes and be a part of political decision-making processes in their new home. However, lack of adequate translation and interpretation services and translated materials, frequent disenfranchisement at the hands of poll workers, and new election reform legislation threaten to erase decades of hard-won gains to open up and welcome those who have suffered from long discrimination into the political system. The state must insist upon providing materials and poll workers who are familiar with and speak the language(s) of the communities they serve, and must pass legislation to mitigate the effects of the Help America Vote Act's new identification requirements of first- voters in this year's elections, and provide adequate funding to create statewide systems to protect the rights of voters and create a statewide database of eligible voters.

New Americans’ enthusiasm and commitment to being active members of our nation’s electoral process at all levels is unquestioned. Yet many immigrant voters, often unfamiliar with participatory democracy and without a roadmap of how to insert themselves in this process, still need information on the mechanics of voter registration and voting rights basics. This lack of access is exacerbated by a language divide carried over into an absence of clear, translated materials for immigrant voters in languages they speak and feel most comfortable. The NYIC frequently bridges this gap by printing multi-lingual voting rights palm cards in ten languages detailing election dates and voters’ rights at the polls; working with ethnic media outlets to produce ‘How to Vote’ videos and public service announcements prior to Election Day with instructions on the use of voting machines; and running voter helplines to provide new citizens with their polling site locations, remind them of their voting rights, and record incidents when their voting rights are violated.

In an election year that promises to see record voter turnout - particularly within immigrant communities that know their issues are hanging in the balance – it is crucial to have clear and multi-lingual information available to new American voters in the months leading up to Election Day, and even more essential to be vigilant about protecting their rights on Election Day itself. Many are unaware the number of New York voters denied their rights at the polls in the 2000 Presidential elections exceeded those turned away in Florida – the bulk of these voters were the newest New Yorkers, turned away for ‘looking or sounding foreign’ and often challenged by poll watchers and poll workers if it appeared English was NOT their first language or they were unfamiliar with the workings of their polling site. This treatment is a direct replay of our nation’s shameful history of poll taxes and literacy tests – and it is an affront to America’s mantra of ‘democracy for all’.

The burden of proof falls into two large categories: 1) translated election information and recruiting thousands of bilingual poll workers before Election Day, and 2) safeguarding new americans’ voting rights on Election Day itself by improving poll worker training and providing more poll workers fluent in the language(s) spoken by new citizen voters.

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) covers three languages in New York City – Spanish, Chinese, and Korean – and allows prospective voters to register and receive basic election notices in those languages, vote using a translated ballot, and receive some interpretation at their polling sites. Communities become eligible for VRA assistance based on a complicated set of criteria that includes the concentration, literacy, and education levels of an ethnic or language group.

This assistance allows thousands of immigrant voters to receive basic information on how to participate in the franchise and is crucial, but only this is only the tip of the iceberg. Tens of thousands of New York City’s eligible immigrant electorate are not included under the VRA. In New York, they include voters from all corners of the globe, including Haitians, Russians and South Asians. Without the federal mandate, large communities such as the Russian, Haitian, or Bangladeshi communities, which fall slightly short of the federal benchmark, are not provided with translated materials or language assistance that would allow them to more effectively participate in elections. The information gap for these communities is much wider, and cannot be effectively bridged by unclear and uneven Board of Elections materials not even reflective of the top ten immigrant voting groups in New York City

HAVA’s sweeping changes to voter registration and election procedures stand to impact new citizen voters substantially. Given the complicated set of requirements states must comply with under HAVA, the need for widespread and linguistically appropriate education for, respectively, poll workers and new voters is particularly pressing.

Translation/Interpretation Issues

- Lack of adequate and clear materials
- Not enough languages covered in translated materials
- Need for more bilingual poll workers – particularly those not covered under the federal Voting Rights Act

As you may already know, Spanish-, Chinese,- and Korean-speaking voters are covered under the Voting Rights Act in New York, which allows prospective voters to register and receive basic election notices in those languages, vote using a translated ballot, and receive some interpretation at their polling sites. This assistance is critical. However, tens of thousands of New York City’s eligible immigrant electorate are not included under the VRA. These include voters from all corners of the globe, including those that speak Haitian Creole, Russian, Bengali, Polish, and Urdu. Without the federal mandate these communities, which fall slightly short of the federal benchmark, are not given the language assistance that would allow them to more effectively participate in elections. Along with other members of the New York State Citizen’s Coalition on HAVA Implementation and immigrant rights organizations, the NYIC has been able to work closely with the New York City Board of Elections to expand the languages in which translation and interpretation assistance is provided by recruiting bilingual poll workers fluent in Russian and Haitian Creole, in addition to those covered under the Voting Rights Act. Expanding the number of bilingual poll workers including interpreters, who will provide language-appropriate assistance to voters in languages covered under the Voting Rights Act PLUS other communities, such as the Russian, Haitian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani, who are on the cusp of reaching the federal benchmark for inclusion under the VRA.

Voter education needs include
- Multi-lingual voting rights info
· Multi-lingual voter registration and education materials for new voters, including a Voter’s Bill of Rights, educational videos and brochures, and clear explanations of acceptable forms of identification and documentation voters can present to vote
· Improved and expanded language assistance through the Board of Elections’ voter helpline (866-VOTE-NYC) to go beyond those languages covered under the Voting Rights Act: specifically, Russian, Haitian Creole, Bengali, Polish, and Urdu.

HAVA & improved poll worker training recommendations include:
- Passing legislation with the most comprehensive list of possible Identification voters can present before and on Election Day
- Create a statewide database of registered voters as soon as possible
- Improve poll worker training and re-training to comply with HAVA and not demand ID from longstanding voters.

HAVA’s sweeping changes to voter registration and election procedures stand to impact new citizen voters substantially. Given the complicated set of requirements states must comply with under HAVA, the need for widespread and linguistically appropriate education for, respectively, poll workers and new voters is particularly pressing.

New citizen voters and voters of color already encounter a disproportionately higher incidence of intimidation and harassment at the hands of poll workers. Distinguishing new voters from longstanding voters will provide poll workers another opportunity to inaccurately apply HAVA’s identification requirements based on racial or ethnic prejudice. Based on our past experience, we can expect increased discrimination by poll workers against immigrants and voters of color by only asking certain voters for photo identification based on whether they “look or sound foreign”, not based on whether they are required to present identification. An NYIC survey found immigrant voters were twice as likely to be asked for proof of identification by poll workers when it was illegal to ask ANYONE for ID. AALDEF surveyed voters in the 2002 state elections, and found one in six Asian voters was illegally asked for proof of identification by poll workers. This is unfortunately a consistent theme across many communities; and with the enactment of the “Help America Vote Act,” this kind of discriminatory treatment will increase exponentially and will only be compounded by regulations that distinguish first-time voters from longstanding ones. Poll worker misinformation is legendary, and will only serve to compound confusion on the part of new voters: a comprehensive voter survey coordinated by NYPIRG during last year's general election found that fewer than 34% of poll workers gave the correct answer about the rights of registered voters who had recently changed their address.

These points only underscore the need for drastically improved poll worker training, which can be funded by monies available through HAVA. This increased funding for voter education and poll worker training should be maximized to increase the level of language-appropriate assistance and election information provided to Limited English Proficient voters and expand the number of languages in which this is provided beyond those covered under the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

We urge the state to systematize this expanded assistance through the use of monies available under HAVA to ensure the needs of the state’s growing number of immigrant voters for voter information and assistance at the polls is met. Specifically, these should include:
· Expanded poll worker training to delineate exactly who must present identification and what their recourse is to ensure they vote, including extra testing, classes, and instructional videos
· Work with the NYIC and other community-based organizations to expand its Bilingual New Yorkers Welcome New Voters program to recruit more poll workers that speak the languages of the voters they serve on Election Day.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify, and we look forward to working closely with you in the future as we continue to welcome hundreds of thousands of immigrant voters into the franchise.

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