Tag Archives: Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund

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.”




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.

Queens residents vocal over redistricting

| brennison@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/photo by Billy Rennison

Communities split by redistricting a decade ago are calling for unification as another round kicked off in Queens.

Every 10 years, to account for fluctuations in the census, the city holds redistricting hearings to adjust council lines. The redistricting commission came to Queens for a public hearing at Flushing Library, allowing residents to express how lines should be adjusted.

“Redistricting is a critical civic engagement issue,” said Steven Choi, executive director, MinKwon Center for Action. “In previous years, districts have not followed natural community boundaries. They were only drawn to help incumbents and have diluted the votes of minorities.”

The city charter calls for communities of interest to be kept together while fairly representing minority groups — something many who spoke said has not happened. Districts will be around 160,000 people, with all being within 10 percent of the average.

Nearly all who spoke focused on Flushing, Bayside and the Ozone Park/South Ozone Park/Richmond Hill area.

The Richmond Hill area — largely Indo-Caribbean and South Asian — has been split into four council districts, preventing residents from receiving proper representation, many in the area said.

“It’s been apparent that the system has been designed to disenfranchise us,” said Richard David, executive director of Indo-Caribbean Alliance. “Our elected officials do not represent the interests of the residents currently there.”

Those in the area believe Ozone Park, South Ozone Park and Richmond Hill define a community of interest and should be represented as such.

Members of Asian-American advocacy groups also urged the commission to keep the growing population of Flushing together.

“Residents of Flushing share many common interests, such as need for language assistance, immigration issues and reliance on public transportation,” said Glenn Magpantay, a director at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Other areas touched on by the more than 100 residents who attended the hearing were placing the more sparsely populated areas of District 20 into District 19, putting Oakland Gardens into the same district as Bayside, reuniting Kew Gardens into one district and redrawing District 28’s lines using natural boundaries.

The process is still in its infancy. The 15-member bipartisan commission chosen by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Minority Leader James Oddo will release a preliminary draft on September 5, followed by another round of public hearings and a revised plan.

New districts will not be finalized until spring of next year.