By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A group of Asian-Americans filed a complaint this week against the city with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, claiming they’ve suffered discrimination at the polls.
The complaint is filed on behalf of Boat People SOS and Hong Nguyen, an Asian-American voter who became an American citizen in 2011. Nguyen speaks little English and says she received no language help at the polls when she tried to cast her ballot in the 2012 presidential election. Telling her story through a translator, she says she got the run around from poll workers.
“I could not fully understand them,” Nguyen said in Vietnamese, “they said my name was not on the list.”
Nguyen says she was sent to another polling place, given a form in English and eventually came back with someone who could speak English on her behalf and discovered that the first polling place she visited was the correct place. Because of her persistence, she was able to vote.
“Voting is important,” she said at Wednesday’s press conference, “if there is no language access at the polls this will continue….whether or not we are English fluent we have a right to vote.”
“As each election passes, more and more Asian American LEP voters are being disenfranchised,” says Jerry Vattamala, an attorney with the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund. He says AALDF has monitored every election for several years and documented the issues in Philadelphia with regard to language access. Vattamala says tens of thousands of Asian Americans with limited English proficiency (LEP) live in Philadelphia, yet the city has failed to provide enough translators or translated materials to for these voters between 2008 to date.
“In 2012, for the presidential election, there were only four Asian language interpreters for the entire city of Philadelphia,” he says, “that is unacceptable.”
He says dialogue with the city has not been fruitful. He says officials referred him to Language Line — a translation service — but the blue cards informing voters about the service were nowhere to be found at the polls and poll workers were unaware of the resource. Vattamala says they need translators for Korean voters in North Philadelphia, Vietnamese voters in South Philadelphia, Chinese voters in Center City and Cambodian voters in Olney.
“We now know why the percentage of Asian voters is so dismally low, there are too many structural barriers and not enough support,” says Helen Nguyen, branch manager of Boat People SOS-Delaware Valley. “This lack of support has collectively silenced our community’s voice.”
Nguyen says less a third of eligible Asian-Americans cast a ballot in 2008.
The Philadelphia City Commissioners could not be reached for comment.