Thursday, April 15

‘Give Us the Ballot’: Asian Americans and the Struggle for Voting Rights in America

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“All types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote.  ‘Give us the ballot’ and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”   

May 17th, 1957 Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Give Us the Ballot” oration, at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C.


By Anthony Tran

As the 2016 race for the White House nears, a group of heroes, including volunteer attorneys, law students, college students and community activists, are continuing the fight; the long road to justice, for the rights of Asian American to vote, without any discrimination.

The ability to have a say in the workings of the government, either as an elected official or as a voter, is a powerful empowerment tool. Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the United States, yet the community’s political strength has yet to be fully realized.


Throughout the history of the United States, Asian Americans have been disenfranchised by discriminatory laws that denied citizenship to Asian immigrants and rendered them ineligible to vote. It was not until 1943 that Chinese Americans were first permitted to become citizens. For Asian Indians, it was 1946. For Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans, that right did not come until 1952. Despite the inroads, the legacy of these discriminatory policies and the notion of Asian Americans as foreigners are still strongly felt today, impeding Asian American political participation.

“We’re trying to amplify the voice of the Asian-American electorate, which has traditionally been ignored by mainstream media.  AALDEF works with volunteers and partner organizations to highlight and break barriers to Asian-American voting” said Jerry Vattamala, Director of The Asian American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (AALDEF) Democracy Program.

AALDEF’s surveys show several factors that make Asian-American voters uniquely vulnerable to disenfranchisement:

  • 80 percent are foreign-born naturalized citizens
  • 37 percent have limited English proficiency
  • 27 percent are first-time voters (more than double the national average of 11 percent)
  • Nearly a quarter have no formal education in the U.S.

When poll workers mistreat voters facing barriers like language problems or inverted names (last names first); issues that make it difficult to locate names on a voter roll, it often becomes their last time voting.  “Some voters are so traumatized that they never come back,” Vattamala declared.

In August 2015, AALDEF sued the State of Texas, the Williamson County Elections Department, and the city of Round Rock for denying Asian American voters with limited English proficiency the right to an assistor of their choice, in violation of Section 208 of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). Section 208 provides that voters may choose anyone to assist them at the poll site, except their employer or union representative.

AALDEF’s lawsuit challenges a provision of the Texas Election Code that requires interpreters to be registered to vote in the same county as the voter who needs assistance. This state requirement unduly restricts the range of individuals who are permitted to provide language assistance under Section 208.

Mallika Das, one of the plaintiffs, is a registered voter who lives in Williamson County, Texas. She brought her son, Saurabh Das, to assist her during the early voting period for the Midterm Elections on October 31, 2014. Poll workers did not allow Saurabh to assist his mother because he was registered to vote in neighboring Travis County. As a result, Mrs. Das had to vote without language assistance from the person she had designated.

The complaint seeks to enjoin Texas from continuing to attach unlawful requirements to interpreters, declare the Texas state law invalid, and ensure that Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act is properly enforced.

In other instances, two years ago in Annandale, Va., AALDEF monitors saw poll workers create a segregated line of elderly Korean-American voters, those with limited English skills, in order to allow white voters to go first.


A decade before, in Boston’s Chinatown, Chinese-American voters, with limited English, were segregated into an “Asian” line.  Several were unable to vote because of the long wait. AALDEF’s documentation and legal work led to a successful federal lawsuit against the city.

In the 2012 Presidential election, Asian Americans had to overcome numerous obstacles to exercise their right to vote. AALDEF volunteers identified mistranslated ballots, interpreter shortages that led to Asian American voters being turned away, and poll workers who made hostile and racist remarks about Asian American voters. AALDEF’s mission is to ensure that Asian Americans have an equal opportunity to participate in the voting process and to guard against the disenfranchisement of new citizens and limited English proficient voters.

Vattamala stated “once someone’s right to vote has been taken away on Election Day, there’s no rectifying that.”

In the 2016 Presidential election, AALDEF volunteers will monitor polling sites for compliance with the Voting Rights Acts and note where legislation falls short of Asian-American voters’ needs. Federal requirements on language assistance might not be adequate in some jurisdictions.

AALDEF has conducted exit polls of Asian American voters in every major election since 1988, polls to track voting trends and gauge opinions on relevant policy issues like immigration.
Voters can also report Election Day problems to AALDEF’s toll-free hotline at 800-966-5946; or by e-mail at