Ballots in Bengali Debut in Primary, BOE Sued Over Compliance

Bengali-speaking voters will get ballots in their native language and interpreters at polling places on primary day. (Photo by Voices of NY)

Bengali-speaking voters will get ballots in their native language and interpreters at polling places on primary day. (Photo by Voices of NY)

The New York City Board of Elections will, for the first time, offer ballots printed in Bengali (also called Bangla) for South Asian voters during the upcoming September primaries, reports Trisha Sakhuja in the Queens Tribune.

But the decision by the Board of Elections (BOE) is not enough to satisfy members of the Asian community and civil rights groups who not only want a formal announcement about the new ballots but also to hold the board accountable for failing to comply with its legal obligation. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund has taken the BOE to court over its non-compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

The lawsuit filed against the BOE in the Federal District Court in Brooklyn on July 2 states that the BOE failed to fully meet their requirements for the past four elections and as a result, eligible Bengali voters, who have exceeded the threshold of voting-age citizens and are limited in English proficiency, have not been able to partake in their voting rights.

Along with the failure to comply in the past, the suit also states the BOE’s failure to make “an official public announcement or adequately confirm that ballots in Bengali will be available for the upcoming New York City Mayoral elections, including the Mayoral and City Council Primary scheduled for September 10, 2013.”

Bengali-speaking New Yorkers have for long demanded ballots in their own language because of a low English literacy rate in the community. Bengali is spoken in West Bengal, a state in the eastern region of India, and in neighboring Bangladesh.

Jerry Vattamala, staff attorney for AALDEF, said, “The community falls below the national average in literacy rates and does not speak English well, so they must be provided with additional material at polling sites.”

“The Board has a formal, written plan in place with translated ballots, an advisory group and interpreters for Chinese and Korean voters present at polling sites, so now we want the same for Bengali-speaking voters,” Vattamala said.

The lawsuit says the BOE failed to allow community groups to help put in place “Asian Indian language assistance,” something it has done for other minority languages.

“Monitoring of past elections has shown that the level of assistance that was provided has been deficient,” said Glenn D. Magpantay, AALDEF’s director of the Democracy Program. “The Board has made many promises before. Now we want assurances.”

For the 2012 presidential primaries, the BOE provided interpreters and a list of candidates translated in Bengali under an interim plan at polling stations across Queens. But some community groups complain that the plan didn’t work.

Seema Agnani, executive director of Chhaya CDC, also one of the plaintiffs, said “the translated literature was hidden in a dusty box in the corner of the room and only a few interpreters were present at the site.”

“The Board’s bureaucratic foot dragging has prevented many Bengali-speaking Americans with limited English proficiency from being able to fully exercise their right to vote,” said Agnani. “In New York City – as high as 60% of Bengali speaking residents have limited English proficiency.”

Valerie Vasquez, the BOE director of communications, maintains that the board has always tried to meet its obligations under the Voting Rights Act and gave technical reasons for its past failure to offer translated ballots to Bengali-speaking voters.

“We have previously told advocates that our vendor, who produces the ballots, wasn’t ready at the time because technical adjustments were being made to the software,” she said.

However, Vasquez said, the BOE will provide all translated material at polling sites, interpreters and an advisory group for the upcoming 2013 elections.

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