Tag Archives: AALDEF

60 Queens polling sites to have Bengali translations

| mchan@queenscourier.com

Ballots at 60 Queens polling sites this year will have Bengali translations, officials said, but advocates for South Asian voters are skeptical the move will crystallize.

“Our concern is that we were told in the past that Bengali ballots would be available, particularly for the November general election, and that did not happen,” said attorney Jerry Vattamala of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF).

“We took their word and we sort of got burned,” he added. “Enough is enough.”

A group of South Asian proponents of Bengali ballots filed a lawsuit against the city’s Board of Elections (BOE) on July 2 for its failure, despite assurances, to provide adequate bilingual language assistance in four elections since April 2012.

“We tried to work with them, but then we came to an understanding they weren’t going to do it,” Vattamala said. “We just want something legally enforceable — written confirmation that Bengali will in fact be on the ballot for the next election.”

AALDEF represents the suit’s three plaintiffs, who say the BOE has not complied with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They argue that the law requires the city to provide election information and language assistance to South Asian minorities.

Parts of Queens have been covered under a provision of the act since October 13, 2011.

“You would think it wouldn’t have to come to a lawsuit,” Vattamala said. “But these things are very reasonable, what we’re asking for.”

BOE spokesperson Valerie Vazquez confirmed the borough would have, for the first time, Bengali language assistance for the September 10 primary and November general elections this year.

The 60 polling sites are located mostly in southern Queens near John F. Kennedy International Airport and near Sunnyside, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Elmhurt and Bellerose.

Depending on the number of voters with limited English proficiency in those areas, some of them could also have Hindi or Hindi-Punjabi interpreters.

“It was always our intention to be in full compliance for the 2013 election cycle,” Vazquez said.

Bengali translations were never promised for 2012 elections, Vazquez said, because ballot vendors needed to make technical modifications to the system.

As an interim plan, the board hired full-time staff interpreters and provided a translated candidates list at each polling site in the covered areas, the BOE said.

Supporters of the change are now cautiously optimistic, but agree it is a “tremendous step forward.”

“It’s bringing democracy to more people in Queens,” said John Prakash Albert, board chair of Taking Our Seat, a nonprofit group aimed at empowering South Asians voters.

State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky — who co-sponsored legislation that would require the BOE to provide written Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi language assistance — said implementing Bengali ballots “will have a direct and measurably positive impact on the lives of our neighbors.”

The bill was introduced in the state legislature last year, but never moved out of the Senate’s Elections Committee.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Mazeda Uddin, the national women’s chair for the Alliance of South Asian American Labor, said the elections board is “still lacking.”

“They’re not giving us everything,” she said.

Advocates are seeking binding confirmation from the BOE, a formal Bengali language assistance compliance plan and an agreement to meet with a Bengali language advisory group.

“Last election, they promised me,” Uddin said. “This is the most important for our community. Our people can’t choose the right candidate for lack of access. So many voters can’t vote.”




Districting Commission withdraws map, will hold new round of public hearings

| brennison@queenscourier.com

Map courtesy of NYC Districting Commission

Opponents of the city’s new district maps got their wish for another round of public hearings thanks to Assemblymember Vito Lopez, though confidence significant changes will be made remains low.

When the city’s Districting Commission unveiled the maps on November 16, District 34 was redrawn to include the residence of the embattled assemblymember, reportedly at the request of Councilmember Erik Dilan, allowing Lopez a path to run for City Council. Following a letter from Council Speaker Christine Quinn to withdraw the map, the commission announced at a public meeting on Tuesday, December 4, that Lopez would be moved back into District 37, though he was not mentioned by name, and a new round of public hearings would take place.

“We wanted a third round of hearings, we demanded a third round of hearings, so it’s good we have an opportunity to make further changes to the map. It is in sort of an unexpected way, but here we are,” said Jerry Vattamala, attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense Fund (AALDEF), who added he’s not convinced any adjustments will be made.

The apparent reason for the map’s withdrawal, placing Lopez back in District 37, does not preclude him running in District 34. Lopez would only have to move within the district’s boundaries prior to Election Day to be eligible to run for the seat.

Mitchell Gardens and the Linden Houses were also voted to both be placed in District 20 at the meeting after an error separated them.

While former state Senator Frank Padavan agreed with the two changes made, he questioned voting on only portions of the map.

“Why are we doing the vote piecemeal? It doesn’t make sense to me. If we take a vote it should be what we end up with because a vote here implies that’s all we want to do,” he said at the meeting.

Woodhaven advocate Ed Wendell also wondered whether the commission will actually go back to the drawing board.

“We’re not optimistic at this point, but we’re going to do our best so our needs are heard loud and clear,” he said.

Lack of transparency has led to the lowered expectations people have in the process, said Rachael Fauss, policy and research manager for Citizens Union.

“Any process suffers from legitimacy and public perception when you have political actors who seemingly are circumventing the process,” she said.

New public hearings have yet to be announced, though they will likely be held in January. The commission will then approve and submit a new map to the City Council which will have three weeks to object to it.

Though confidence is lacking, Vattamala said the commission has one last chance to produce a well-crafted map.

“Regardless of what’s happened thus far, if they can pull it together and correct the districts that need correcting, I think we’ll be in good shape and it will restore people’s confidence in the commission and the process,” Vattamala said.

Districting Commission approves City Council map

| brennison@queenscourier.com

Map courtesy of NYC Districting Commission

Another round of redistricting is complete and new City Council lines are one step away from taking effect.

The city’s 15-member bipartisan Districting Commission unanimously approved the redrawn map on November 15 before presenting it to the City Council for approval. If the council does not object to the map, the new council districts will take effect in 2013.

The decennial council redistricting is done to account for fluctuations in the census.

During the two rounds of public hearings, advocacy groups spoke out against current district lines that, they said, split minorities, diluting their vote. The newly submitted map includes five additional districts containing a majority of minority groups, bringing the number to 35 out of 51.

“The commission believes that the revised plan reflects what was shared with the commission, within the legal restrictions set forth by the New York City Charter,” the group said in a statement.

While improvements have been made, Jerry Vattamala, of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), said they did not go far enough, calling it a “mixed bag.”

Some communities saw no improvement in the new map or in other cases were made worse, according to Vattamala.

In Queens, dozens of locals advocated for placing Oakland Gardens in District 19 with Bayside, but instead a larger area of the neighborhood was placed in District 23. Briarwood and Jamaica Hills, which shared a district, are now split up.

Among the positives included in the new map, the second draft released by the commission, was a greater portion of the Indo-Caribbean community being placed in District 28 and the Elmhurst/Jackson Heights area closely conforming to the “unity map,” said Vattamala,

Several groups advocated for the “unity map,” which complied with all the legal requirements set forth in the city charter and was designed to protect the voting rights of minorities in the city.

The submitted map will not be subject to any further public review unless the council rejects it, which Vattamal said “violated the spirit of the city charter.”

“The map was presented to the public Thursday evening and less than 24 hours later was submitted to the New York City Council,” he said.

At this time the AALDEF is not considering legal action, but as they continue to analyze the map, it remains an option.

If there is an objection, there will be a third round of public hearings before a final plan is presented to the city clerk’s office for approval by March 5 before heading to the Department of Justice for clearing.

Queens advocates push for ‘unity map’ in Council redistricting

| brennison@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Photo by Billy Rennison

One phrase was continually repeated at the second round of the city’s public hearing on redistricting — déjà vu.

The chorus of voices, whose pleas went unheard at the first round of city council redistricting hearings, returned with much the same message.

“Little has changed since August when we were commenting on the current district lines,” said James Hong, of the Asian American Community Coalition On Redistricting and Democracy (ACCORD).

In August, advocates submitted a “unity map” that was mostly ignored in the preliminary redistricting map. The unity map complies with all the legal requirements set forth in the city charter and Voting Rights Act, said Gerry Vattamala, staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), and is designed to protect the voting rights of minorities in the city.

“We are committed to making sure that redistricting helps strengthen democracy not undermine it,” said Steven Choi, executive director of the Minkwon Center.

At the hearing at LaGuardia Community College on Wednesday, October 10, the redistricting commission said they are looking at and considering the changes suggested in the unity map.

The preliminary map leaves Richmond Hill split into quarters, Oakland Gardens separate from Bayside and places a greater portion of Elmhurst into District 29 which also contains Rego Park, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens. These lines, advocates say, dilutes the votes of minorities.

“Being divided among different districts, the fracturing or cracking of minority populations is today the greatest problem New York City’s Asian Americans are facing,” Hong said.

The decennial council redistricting is done to account for fluctuations in the census.

The preliminary map will continue to be reworked and a new design will be presented to the City Council November 5, which will have three weeks to approve or reject it.

If rejected, there will be a third round of public hearings before a final plan is presented to the city clerk’s office for approval by March 5 before heading to the Department of Justice for clearing.