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Ms. Margaret Fung
June 13, 2006
Testimony of Margaret Fung
Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. My name is Margaret Fung, and I am the executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). Thank you for the invitation to testify today on the topic of minority language assistance under section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. We are glad to have the opportunity to express our support for S. 2703, the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act
AALDEF is a 32-year old New York-based national organization that promotes and protects the civil rights of Asian Americans through litigation, legal advocacy and community education. Our programs focus in the areas of immigrant rights, economic justice for workers, hate violence and police misconduct, language access to services, youth rights and educational equity, and voting rights and civic participation.
Since 1988, AALDEF has monitored elections and conducted multilingual exit polls to document barriers to voting faced by Asian Americans. In 1994, AALDEF led the campaign to secure the first fully translated Chinese-language ballots in New York. In November 2004, we conducted the nation's largest multilingual exit poll of 11,000 Asian American voters in eight states-New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Rhode Island, Michigan and Illinois-to assess the needs of Asian American voters with limited English proficiency and to document voter problems.
AALDEF has litigated cases to defend the voting rights of Asian Americans. Last February, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of Asian American organizations and individual voters against the New York City Board of Elections for violations of section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Chinatown Voter Education Alliance v. Ravitz, Civ. No. 06-CV-913 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 6, 2006). We are currently seeking to intervene in the Justice
Department's lawsuit against the New York State Board of Elections for non-compliance with the federal Help America Vote Act, U.S. v. New York State Board of Elections, Civ. No. 06-CV-0263 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 1, 2006), to ensure that new voting machines in New York will have the capability to present multilingual ballots and voter verifiable paper records under section 203. And in 1997, we represented Asian American voters who intervened in Diaz v. Silver, 978 F. Supp. 96 (E.D.N.Y. 1997)(per curiam), aff'd, 522 U.S. 801 (1997), a constitutional challenge to New York's 12th Congressional District, which established that Asian Americans in Manhattan and Brooklyn constitute a "community of interest" that should be kept together within a single legislative district. AALDEF has also submitted section 5 comments to the Justice Department, objecting to voting changes that diluted minority voting strength in New York City's school board elections.
Fourteen years ago, I testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, in support of the Voting Rights Language Assistance Act of 1992 and its inclusion of a numerical trigger for section 203 coverage. In November 2005, I testified again before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution about the success of section 203 of the Voting Rights Act in promoting Asian American civic participation.
AALDEF has prepared a new report, Asian Americans and the Voting Rights Act: The Case for Reauthorization, which is attached to this statement. In my testimony today, I will summarize some key findings in our report and would like to request that the full 47-page report and accompanying appendices be included in the official record.
Overcoming a Legacy of Discrimination
Section 203 has opened up the political process for Asian Americans, especially first time voters and new citizens. At the most fundamental level, translated ballots in voting machines have enabled Asian Americans to exercise their right to vote privately and independently inside the polling booth. According to AALDEF's 2004 exit poll of 11,000 Asian American voters, almost one-third of all respondents needed some form of language assistance in order to vote, and the greatest beneficiaries of language assistance (46%) were first-time voters. Of those polled, over 51% of Asian American voters got their news about politics and community issues from the Asian-language media.
Section 203 and the Increase in Asian American Voter Participation
Alaska, California, Hawai'i, Illinois, New York, Texas and Washington. The five languages covered include Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Japanese. Asian American voter registration grew 58% from 1996 to 2004, as compared to Latino registration (45%), Black registration (15%), and White registration (7%). sian American voter turnout also grew 71% from 1996 to 2004, with 3 million Asian Americans voting in the 2004 elections. By comparison, Latino turnout grew 57%, Black turnout grew 26%, and White turnout grew 15%. The number of Asian American elected officials in federal, state and local positions has also increased since the passage of section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, from 120 in 1978 to a total of 346 in 2004. In New York City, which has the nation's largest Asian American population, the first Asian American City Councilmember was elected in 2001 and the first Asian American State Assemblyman was elected in 2004, a decade after Queens County was covered under section 203. In Houston, Texas, the first Vietnamese American was elected to the state legislature in 2004, within years after Vietnamese language assistance was required in Harris County under section 203. And in California, the number of Asian Americans elected to the state assembly increased from zero in 1990 to nine in 2005. Eight of these nine legislators were elected in counties covered by section 203.
The Ongoing Need for Language Assistance
Behind the statistics, of course, are the real voters. Asian Americans might not vote as often without translated ballots or interpreters, since they may not fully understand the voting process or do not want to make errors. For example, Shiny Liu, a Chinese American voter from Queens County, New York, is one of the Asian American plaintiffs we represent in our Section 203 lawsuit against the New York City Board of Elections. She described why translated ballots and voting materials are still necessary: The first time I voted was in 2003. I used an interpreter and a ballot that was translated into Chinese. Now, I know how to vote, so I vote alone without any assistance. I have voted on ballots in English before, but I am not comfortable doing so because I am not confident that I properly understand the English. I would rather vote on ballots translated into Chinese because I can be sure of who and what I am voting for.
As Ms. Liu expressed, a ballot can be overly complicated to understand if the voter has limited English skills. Indeed, even a native-born English speaker often can be confused by the complex language of a referendum or the technical instructions for casting a
Byung Soo Park, another plaintiff in AALDEF's lawsuit against the New York City Board of Elections, understands the importance of learning English. Because of his demanding work schedule as a truck driver, Mr. Park has little time to learn English: I became a citizen in October 2001 and registered to vote at the Korean
American Voters' Council office with the help of their staff. Ever since I first registered to vote, I have never missed an election. Every time I vote I need to use the assistance of an interpreter. I want to learn English but I have no time because I am a truck driver and work long hours on the road. Korean Americans should be treated as United States citizens because that is what we are. I want us all to be treated equally.
For Mr. Park and countless other new citizens, economic barriers have hindered their ability to learn English. Nevertheless, they understand the importance of civic participation, and they cherish the right to vote. With renewal of the language assistance provisions of section 203, Asian Americans can continue to have a meaningful voice in our democracy.
Voting Discrimination Against Asian Americans Persists Today
Unfortunately, as you can see, voting discrimination against Asian Americans, both subtle and overt, is ongoing and persistent. Section 203 and the other temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act have prevented and remedied such discrimination, and these provisions should be renewed.
Language Assistance Is Integral to our Democracy
Language assistance under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act recognizes the value of citizenship by encouraging greater participation of limited English proficient voters in the political process. AALDEF and many Asian American community groups had hoped that section 203's numerical trigger of 10,000 voting age citizens would be lowered to provide coverage for smaller language minority communities.* Although S. 2703 does not change the numerical trigger in section 203, we support the provision that allows the use of updated Census data and more frequent testing for coverage under section 203.