Precincts hit bumps with Asian Indian language voting requirement

November 8, 2012

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(WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
This was the first general election where Indian-American voters in parts of Chicago and suburban Cook County could vote in Hindi.

A Chicago-based advocacy organization says that some precincts in Chicago and suburban Cook County had hiccups this week when it came to implementing some federal voting requirements on language access.

Last year the U.S. Department of Justice found that South Asian Indian voters in parts of those jurisdictions qualified for bilingual assistance at the polls under Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act. This was the first general election that those election jurisdictions had to comply with the rules.

In places where Indian-American voters are concentrated, precincts offered written ballots and translated voting instructions in the Hindi language. They were also required to have election judges who speak Indian dialects common to South Asian voters in their precincts.

“Tuesday, a lot of the polling places, they had Hindi hardcopy ballots,” said Andy Kang of the Asian American Institute. “But unfortunately a lot of election judges were only making them available upon request by voters, rather than proactively presenting the option to South Asian voters.”

Kang said that the spirit of the Voting Rights Act requires judges to tell voters of their language options. He also said that Hindi-translated voting materials were not prominently displayed in some precincts. Kang noted that he believes the problems arose from a need to further educate election judges, rather than from any malicious intent.

Cook County Clerk David Orr said his office received positive feedback from voters about the new language access option. Orr disagreed with the notion that, to comply with federal requirements, election judges have to proactively offer Hindi-language materials to voters. "We’d never want to try and identify who might a Hindi voter," Orr said, "as opposed to maybe a Spanish-speaking voter."

Orr said his office focused instead on educating voters about their language options before they went to the polls. Their efforts included translated mailers, a Hindi-language hotline, public service announcements on Hindi-language television programming, and partnerships with Asian-American community organizations, like the Asian American Institute, that had voter outreach activities.

Trying to identify Hindi-language voters at the polls would have created difficulties. "You can’t assume that those people are deficient in English," Orr explained. "Many of them aren’t."

Correction: This article originally incorrrectly stated that federal law requires designated precincts to have bilingual election judges and poll watchers. In fact, the law only requires bilingual election judges.