How Do We Make Sure Voter Information Is Not Lost in Translation for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders?

Photo courtesy of the Asian Community Alliance in Ohio.
Language access is a unique barrier for AAPI voters that can determine voter turnout, advocates say.

Voter information pamphlets, with their fine print, many choices, and often convoluted language are hard enough to understand. But they may be nearly impossible to navigate for voters with limited English skills, a category that almost half of Asian American adults fall into. Janelle Wong, Director of the Asian American Studies Program and Resource Center at University of Maryland explains, “Because more than three-quarters of Asian American adults speak a language other than English at home, translation is a critical issue in terms of providing Asian Americans with political information during this election cycle.”

With 77 percent speaking a non-English language at home, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders edge out Latinos (75 percent) as the racial demographic most likely to speak a heritage language. And because there’s not a single language that unites AAPIs, outreach to voters can be feel like a Herculean task, with many different organizations working in different communities translating dozens of languages. Yet language outreach is key to getting more Asian Americans to the polls. This year, the many disparate efforts seem to be more urgent and coordinated than ever, with government agencies, Asian American advocacy groups, and even web developers getting in the game.

“This language barrier is likely one of the major factors to the persistent depressed political participation rates seen, with 15 to 20 percent fewer Asian Americans registering and turning out to vote as compared to non-Hispanic white voters election after election,” Terry Ao Minnis, Director of Census and voting Programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said.

Mobilized by anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well fears of race-targeted obstruction at the polls, organizations ranging from decades-old Asian American civil rights groups to small ethnic community centers and religious organizations are spending the last few weeks leading up to November 8 getting out the vote in as many languages as possible. Advocates are worried that a Voting Rights Act weakened by Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder ruling might make it harder for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to cast their ballots, opening up the way for states to require voters to show photo identification.

“Emerging communities, particularly those that begin to grow to numbers where they can exert political power, are often targeted by voter discrimination or suppression in order to silence that political voice,” Minnis said. She cites a wave of voter ID laws in states such as Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia. In rural Siskiyou County in the northernmost reaches of California, the American Civil Liberties Union and the California Attorney General are overseeing the November elections after allegations that the county obstructed Hmong farmers from voting in the June primary.

AAAJ-ALC know your voting rights workshop and voter registration in Oakland Chinatown, with partner organization Family Bridges.
AAAJ-ALC know your voting rights workshop and voter registration in Oakland Chinatown, with partner organization Family Bridges.

”Normally, we would be running a smaller poll monitoring program, but because of the rhetoric of this presidential election, we know there is a greater need,” says Jonathan Stein, Staff Attorney and Program Manager for the San Francisco based group Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. The organization started doing voting rights education in Asian languages in 1991, but this year is its biggest push yet. Stein and one other staffer are working throughout Northern and Central California to distribute Know Your Voting Rights information translated into 12 Asian languages, and to check that county elections officers are providing required translation to Asian American communities. Similar efforts are underway in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

Reaching Asian Americans with limited English proficiency has long been a challenge because federal law only requires translation under very specific population and language requirements. Since 1975, the government has mandated multilingual voting for certain marginalized groups under Section 203 in the Voting Rights Act, but only under the following conditions: There must be more than 10,000 voting age citizens (or five percent of the total populations of voters) of that minority language group in the jurisdiction, who have depressed literacy rates and do not speak English very well.

Large ethnic populations concentrated in metropolitan areas may receive registration materials, voter information, and even ballots in their languages. Los Angeles County provides translated voting materials in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese. But due to the diversity of languages and dispersion of Asian American voters within many districts, ethnic communities may not get the information in their language.Language translation may also be covered under the right to have assistance for illiteracy or disability, and some states, like California, will provide translation for minority language speakers—such as Hindi and Khmer—that aren’t populous enough to be entitled to translation under federal law.

AAAJ-ALC know your voting rights workshop and voter registration at a Sikh gurdwara in Fresno, with partner organization Jakara Movement.
AAAJ-ALC know your voting rights workshop and voter registration at a Sikh gurdwara in Fresno, with partner organization Jakara Movement.

According to Asian Americans Advancing Justice, there are significant Korean populations in Chicago and Atlanta who do not quite meet the 5 percent threshold to require elections officials to provide translations. And even when properly applied, voting laws leave a lot of room for interpretation at the local level. In California, for instance, there is a large South Asian population, but because many languages are spoken—including Arabic, Farsi and Urdu—translation is often not available in the appropriate language. For example, many counties in California’s Central Valley have large Indian populations—but they receive materials in Hindi, not in Punjabi, which is most commonly spoken by immigrants in that region.

Ethnic media also plays a key role in informing AAPI voters. A recent national survey of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders shows the importance of ethnic media. One in five AAPIs get political news exclusively from ethnic media, which can include television or radio stations, print news and increasingly web or mobile sources. An additional 10 percent of Asian Americans rely on a mix of ethnic and mainstream American news sources. And there’s a wide disparity between different ethnic groups. Among the groups who depend the most on Asian-focused media, 39 percent of Vietnamese, 34 percent of Chinese, and 33 percent of Koreans. On the other hand, only four percent of Asian Indians, six percent of Japanese and seven percent of Filipinos rely on ethnic media.

This information comes from the National Asian American Survey of 2238 Asian Americans and 305 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, conducted in August and September 2016. In fact 45 percent of the recent NAAS the interviews, conducted between August and September 2016, were done in an Asian language.

And the need for Asian language translation is only going to grow, with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders constituting the fastest growing demographic group, according to Cayden Mak, Interim Director of the nonprofit voter advocacy organization 18 Million Rising. “One of the things that I realized early on is that the problem of solving for Americans speaking hundreds of languages at home is that the government is not equipped to solve this problem,” Mak said. “But it’s essential if we’re committed to becoming a real 21st century democracy is that it includes as many eligible citizens as possible.”

NAAS16-SourceofPoliticalInfo-EthnicMediaOutreach to limited English proficiency Asian voters began well before election day, creating opportunities for political campaigns to do their own language outreach—if they choose to do so. “Notably, about 20 percent of Asian Americans who were contacted by a party or other organization were contacted in-language,” says Wong.

On the Democratic side, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton launched an AAPI outreach team in January, something which campaign spokeswoman Zara Rahim says the candidate specifically asked for. 

“Given the high limited English proficiency rates, our AAPI for Hillary groups have community leaders that are bilingual and speak multiple languages,” says Jason Tengco, National AAPI Outreach Director, Hillary for America. He adds that multilingual volunteers “can help us do in-language phone banks encouraging folks to register voters to support Hillary and to support Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.” Clinton’s Asian American outreach includes over twelve ethnic groups, including phone banks Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Hindi, Hmong, Korean, Tagalog, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Urdu, and Vietnamese

The Clinton campaign has also taken out Asian language television and radio ads in Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Korean.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump only recently created an Asian Pacific American advisory committee in late September, although GOP spokesperson Ninio Fetalvo says, “We want to emphasize the importance of in-person voter contact which is why we have staff and volunteers who communicate to the APA voters in their communities. We have staff and volunteers who speak Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Tagalog.” He notes that the Republican National Committee has been reaching out to Asian language press and working with groups such as Chinese Americans for Trump, Indian Americans for Trump, and Korean Americans for Trump.

Promotional photo for 18 Million Rising's Voter Vox project.
Promotional photo for 18 Million Rising’s Voter Vox project.

Ultimately the solution to ensuring that Asian language speakers have access to information may not come from Washington D.C., but from Silicon Valley. Inspired by on-demand apps and the peer economy, 18 Million Rising launched in October the online platform Voter Vox, connecting voters needing translation with multilingual volunteers. “We want to keep things simple by matching individuals. A voter who isn’t super-savvy can build a relationship with a translator,” Mak said. The site is designed to be mobile responsive, as marginalized communities often rely on smartphones, not desktops. Currently, Voter Vox is offering services in California and Minnesota, joining with local groups such as Hmong American partnership, Asian American Organizing Project, Arab American Civic Council, Asian Youth Center, OCA-LA, and South Asian Network to provide translators in their areas.

If this all seems like a tremendous amount of effort to reach Asian Americans, a demographic that makes up only six percent of the total U.S. population, Minnis says that language assistance can go a long way in raising voter participation rates, citing a 20 percent increase in voter registration among Filipino Americans and 40 percent among Vietnamese Americans after the Department of Justice ordered San Diego County to provide better translation to these populations. The connection between language and voting is clear, according to Minnis: “We know that when language assistance is properly provided that Asian American participation rates increase.”

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Grace Hwang Lynch is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance journalist and essayist, with a focus on race and culture. Her work has been published by PBS, PRI, Salon and Library Journal. She also blogs about mixed race Asian family life at Follow @GraceHwangLynch on Twitter.