Election officials in Cook County and the city of Chicago are rushing to comply with the latest elections-related mandate from the U.S. Department of Justice: to provide bilingual assistance to Asian Indians in time for the 2012 election.
“We need to get moving and get this process rolling,” said Kelly Bateman, Assistant Executive Director of the Chicago Board of Elections. “The election’s March 20, so you go back a good six weeks before the election, if not more,” added Bateman, referring to the Republican primary voting date in Illinois.
Bateman and her counterparts at the Cook County Clerk’s office have just a few weeks to translate all written materials and publicity pieces for the election. They also need to find bilingual poll workers and interpreters for election day to assist Indian immigrants who are registered voters. This assistance is currently available to Spanish-speaking and Chinese-speaking minorities, which qualify under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.
The federal formula to determine which language groups get bilingual assistance depends on the number of voting age citizens with limited English proficiency, and the portion with less than a fifth-grade education. Until this year, the U.S. Census Bureau considered the data every ten years. Going forward, the determinations will be made every five years, based on data from the American Community Survey.
Bateman says her office is well-versed in providing this assistance, but accommodating Indian Americans may present some different challenges. “There could be 50-plus different types of languages or dialects in the Asian Indian language,” said Bateman. “So we need to narrow it down to one language that is recognizable and understandable by the community.”
The three most common languages spoken for Indians in Cook County are Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati, but there are dozens more, including Tamil, Punjabi, and Telugu, to name a few. And they’re not all united by a common written script, as with Chinese. So Bateman and officials with the election office in Cook County are getting knee-deep into the data to learn which precincts Indian Americans live in and which languages they speak.
Bateman says even though the written materials will only be translated into one language, poll workers and interpreters can help with others.
Bateman’s office and the Cook County Clerk’s office were surprised that Indian-Americans were the next group to qualify for language assistance. Based on numbers from the 2000 population survey, they expected Korean to be the next language.
“People can see that influx of Korean-Americans. If you go to Glenview and Northbrook, and also the Niles area, a lot of Korean businesses are booming in that area,” said Sik Sohn, Executive Director of the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center. “So that’s why I think that we expected that the Korean language would be added.”
Sohn is happy for his Indian-American counterparts, but he’s disappointed that Korean-Americans did not qualify for bilingual voting assistance. Sohn wants to see the latest data, and says based on that, he might appeal.
South Asian organizers say language access will overcome an important barrier that many Indian immigrants face when voting. But Chirayu Patel said there’s a bigger obstacle. “I think there was a lack of connection in terms of my voting, how does that affect the issues that I’m facing?”
Patel registered South Asian voters on Chicago’s far North Side for the 2006 midterm elections. He said many of them cared more about politics in India than what was happening in their congressional district.
“I think the biggest thing that we did was make that connection in terms of why voting, even if it’s at the local level, why that matters in terms of addressing the issues that you have,” Patel said.
Patel says it’s great that the feds are giving Indian-Americans a better chance to voice their opinions at the polls. The question is, will they use it?