Asian Indians to gain election help

Chicago, suburban Cook must print ballots, other materials in additional languages

November 7, 2011

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(Getty/Brian Kersey)
Written ballots will be available in a South Asian language by the March primaries.

Cook County and Chicago election officials are on a tight deadline to meet a new requirement to offer language assistance to Asian Indians before the March primary. The Department of Justice has told the election offices that the minority group has met strict thresholds under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, according to the latest numbers from the American Community Survey.

The law requires that the offices translate all written election materials, including voter registration forms and ballots, into the language spoken by the minority group. The offices will also have to provide translation of all pre-election publicity, as well as oral assistance through hotlines on election day. The Cook County Clerk’s Office and the Chicago Board of Elections already provide similar assistance for Spanish and Chinese.

But meeting the requirement for South Asians will be a bigger challenge, because of the diversity of languages spoken by Indian-American immigrants. 

“There could be fifty-plus different languages or dialects in the Asian Indian language,” said Kelly Bateman, Assistant Executive Director of the Chicago Board of Elections. “So we need to narrow it down to one language that is recognizable and understandable by the community.”

According to the latest data from the American Community Survey, about 21,000 South Asians living in Cook County speak Urdu, about 18,000 speak Gujarati, and another 18,000 speak Hindi.  Bateman says Chicago has enlisted a data survey company to identify the precincts where Indian-Americans are concentrated. With the company’s help and through partnerships with local Asian American organizations, the office will determine which language to translate the written materials to. Bateman said it’s possible that oral assistance will be provided in more than one language.

Bateman said the election office will have to move quickly on determining the language and translating materials. “The election’s March 20,” she said, referring to the Illinois primary election. “So you go back a good six weeks before the election, if not more.”

According to the Asian American Institute, the Indian American population in Illinois increased 52 percent between 2000 and 2010, and about one-third of Indian-American voters in Cook County have limited proficiency in English.