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Report: Los Angeles, O.C. fell short with Asian languages at polls

August 08, 2013|By Emily Alpert

Polling places in Los Angeles, Orange County and across the country fell short in helping people who speak Hindi, Khmer and other Asian languages during elections last year, a national civil rights group found in a report released Thursday.

Under the Voting Rights Act, areas that have more than 10,000 people who speak another language -- or more than 5% of citizens of voting age -- and have higher-than-average illiteracy among that group are bound to provide the same voter information and assistance in that language as they provide in English.

But when Asian Americans Advancing Justice and other community groups checked polling places in areas that have sizable numbers of people who speak Asian languages, they detected a slew of shortcomings, including badly displayed information and a lack of bilingual workers.

Hundreds of poll monitors scrutinized nearly 900 precincts across 14 jurisdictions, including Los Angeles and Orange counties, on election day last year.

Almost one out of four polling places was missing a poll worker who spoke one of the Asian languages they were supposed to include, the report found. In addition, nearly half of the precincts were missing at least one piece of translated election material or displayed it so poorly that it was difficult or impossible to see.

Los Angeles County had several problems, especially with languages that it was required to include for the first time: Nearly half of polling places that were supposed to have a worker who spoke Hindi did not, according to the report. Signs indicating that Khmer was spoken were sometimes missing.

Overall, 57% of precincts that were checked in Los Angeles County had at least one piece of translated material that was missing or poorly displayed; the national average was 45%.

"It is through these reports that we are able to fine-tune our commitment to accessibility and transparency when it comes to reaching these communities," the Los Angeles County registrar's office said in a written statement Thursday.

"We recognize areas that need improvement and we are always looking to progress our processes," the statement from Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan added, citing its poll monitoring program.

Orange County also fell short in some areas, the report found. More than a third of polling places that were observed were missing at least one worker who spoke an Asian language, monitors said. When asked, polling workers sometimes refused to display translated materials or said they didn’t have them.

In a written statement Thursday afternoon, Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said the county was proud to be a leader in complying with the Voting Rights Act and called the new report "an excellent resource for us to continue to enhance our operations."

Eugene Lee, director of the Voting Rights Project for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, said the report was not meant to say whether different areas were following the law, but to draw attention to where improvement is needed and how the agencies could do it.

“There are gaps in language assistance, but there are some good things that election officials are doing,” Lee said.

For instance, Los Angeles County won praise because polling workers were more likely than average to actively approach voters in need of assistance. Sample Thai ballots and “Thai spoken here” signs were visible at every Los Angeles County polling place targeted for Thai speakers, the report found.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice also praised San Francisco -- which had only one polling place that was missing a bilingual worker -- for recruiting bilingual help from high schools.

The report recommended that election officials train poll workers in areas where Asian languages were spoken to make sure they knew translated signs and materials were a must.

Language barriers have hampered Asian Americans from turning out to vote in the same numbers as other Americans, activists said. Nationwide, only 56% of Asian American citizens of voting age are registered to vote, a smaller percentage than in other racial and ethnic groups, the report noted.

Almost a third of Asian Americans nationwide have some trouble with English, and the numbers are higher for some groups. In the metropolitan area spanning Los Angeles, Santa Ana and Long Beach, for instance, nearly 55% of people who speak Khmer at home cannot speak English very well, Census Bureau data show.

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emily.alpert@latimes.com

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