Khem Adhikari became an American citizen in October 2022 after living in New York for six years. The day he took his oath, he was given information about how he could begin voting.
Five months later, Adhikari, a Nepali immigrant, has still not been able to register — since the forms need to be filled out in English, a language he does not write or speak.
“I cannot go back to my country and vote over there,” Adhikari told THE CITY through a translator. “I can vote in America.” But the mechanics of doing so have frustrated him, he said.
As the city’s 2023 elections get underway, eligible voters are facing language barriers in registering, advocates say. Voter registration forms are available in 15 languages — English, Spanish, Korean, Bangla, Chinese, Arabic, Yiddish, Haitian Creole, Albanian, Greek, Russian, Tagalog, French and Urdu — but must be completed in English.
Local organizers and activists, particularly those in Queens and The Bronx, say that the city can go further. Data from the 2021 American Community Survey says 3.9 million New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home, including 1.8 million people who speak English “less than very well.”
“If you want more people to be engaged in the democratic process, it shouldn’t be a problem in ensuring that certain communities get voter registration for them in languages that they’re able to read and understand and write,” said Shaniyat Chowdhury, a community organizer in South Jamaica, Queens, who has registered close to 100 people so far this year.
“People are coming here, trying to create something for themselves, for their families, but then there is no effort from our federal [government] to our municipalities in ensuring these people are being represented at every level,” Chowdhury said.
The registration deadline for this year’s primary elections is June 17, 2023.
Clifford Temprosa, chair of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) caucus for the Queens County Young Democrats, organized voter drives for this year’s elections in neighborhoods with sizable AAPI populations including Flushing, Richmond Hill and Woodside. While language barriers get some attention on election days, Temprosa said, they rarely do months earlier when it’s time to register.
“For many of the constituency and the community members, voter registration forms are not translated to the language they actually speak,” Temprosa said. “Now, at the polls, there’s interpretation … Why do we need interpretation at the polls if our communities are registered to vote?”
“Whether it’s one or one million, it’s a person’s right to vote and they need to do it in whatever way it’s the easiest for them. That’s true representation at the table,” he continued.
Jagpreet Singh, political director at Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM), credited the city with providing Bangla signage and interpreters at poll sites — but said that doesn’t go far enough to reach South Asians in Richmond Hill, Queens Village, and Elmhurst, neighborhoods with Punjabi, Nepali and Tamil populations.
“I received complaints from monolingual Punjabi voters that the interpreter at the poll site wasn’t actually able to interpret in Punjabi,” Singh said.
Who Gets Translation?
New York passed a law expanding voting rights in June 2022, including a provision expanding language access for voters with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) — not just at poll sites, but during voter registration as well. The bill provided for “covered languages” as “based on the population of people who identify as LEP in a particular place and who speak a particular language.”
Section 203 of the Federal Voting Rights Act says the languages that must be accommodated are those spoken by “more than 10,000, or more than five percent of all voting age citizens” in a given political subdivision. New York’s bill lowered that threshold to “more than 4,000 speakers,” or “more than two percent of all voting-age citizens.” It is slated to go into effect in 2025.
Punjabi likely would qualify: data from a 2018 census survey reported that more than 10,000 LEP New Yorkers 5 years old and older spoke Punjabi at home. Other languages that likely would qualify include Japanese, Yoruba, Igbo and Ukrainian, all spoken by a significant number of LEP New Yorkers.
The city’s Board of Elections, however, declined to name any additional languages in which they plan to publish voter registration forms.
NYC’s Civic Engagement Commission, tasked with providing translation and interpretation at poll sites and working closely with the NYC Board of Elections (BOE) and New York City Campaign Finance Board, is still tracking how that legislation gets implemented.
Asked about what languages it would provide for in coming years, the BOE said “the voters of NYC created the NYC Civic Engagement Commission which is mandated to provide language translation enhancements to many New Yorkers seeking government assistance, including voting.”
The CEC responded that production and translation of voter registration forms is a “function of the BOE.” It added that it would “continue working to educate potential voters and spread awareness on the equal opportunity to vote in New York City.”
The Campaign Finance Board added that it’s working on launching multilingual text-based outreach later this election cycle and is currently reaching diverse pockets through translated voting material.
“Language access is key to a more representative democracy,” said Gauree Patel, the Senior Manager of Partnerships and Outreach at the NYC Campaign Finance Board.
(In June of 2022, the same month that New York passed its law expanding voting rights, a state court struck down a New York City law that would have allowed about 800,000 non-citizens who are permanent legal residents or authorized to work in the United States to vote in municipal elections here.)
An Unfamiliar System
While local organizations and activists wait to find out what the government bodies will do, they are also sitting down with constituents, helping people translate forms written in English and fill out responses that must be written in English.
Advocates pointed out that many citizens who don’t speak English well, or at all, come from countries facing political instability with very different election processes. This can make what could be simple acts of registering and then voting here feel daunting.
Another factor causing confusion: While there’s still time for new voters to register, those that have already done so are often surprised to learn that they must be registered with a party to vote in primary elections.
Primaries are when the majority of competitive races in New York take place — and the deadline to change party affiliation passed in February.
For non-English speakers, it all can seem complicated, resulting in a reluctance for many people to get involved in civic life, said Rana Abdelhamid, executive director of Malikah, a women’s self-defense organization that works primarily with the city’s North African and Muslim population.
Abdelhamid said hundreds of people showed up to six voter drives that she’s been a part of recently, but she was only able to register perhaps a dozen because people feel so overwhelmed by the process.
“People feel wary of the registration process. And I’m sure the fact that we do it in English and the form is in English is an additional barrier that makes it more difficult,” she said. “It is unfortunate because we know that there’s quite a huge Muslim population in New York City.”
Tenzin Damdul, 20, administrative assistant at the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF), has been knocking on doors for voter outreach in Jackson Heights’ Tibetan community since she was in high school. Damdul has registered around 40 to 50 voters so far this year.
“[For] people who were unregistered to vote, no time was taken to properly communicate to them in whatever language they needed, whether it was English, Tibetan or Hindi,” Damdul said. She emphasized a lack of resources and consistent outreach by elected officials and higher agencies, and said that allocating time and people who speak the language and understand the demographics of the city’s voting blocs is key.
Adhikari, the emigrant from Nepal, is expecting now that, with help from a translator from DRUM, he can successfully vote in this year’s City Council elections. Adhikari also has a vision impairment that makes it hard for him to fill out forms on his cellphone. He depends on local community organizations and his network to provide a computer or laptop so he can successfully register.
He’s tried to register on his own one or two times without success — and added that he hoped the voter registration platform fixes its translation problem.
“All the immigrants [should] not be left out just because of having a language barrier and then not being eligible to vote — that’s something very wrong,” Adhikari said through his translator, Aadit Siwakoti — who’s also the person helping him to register.