Unique Obstacles For Asian Americans In Voting

There's been a lot of attention on how voter ID laws might affect minority groups like African-Americans and Latinos. But some observers say that Asian Americans may also be affected. Host Michel Martin discusses the potential impact with Glenn Magpantay of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, fallout from Republican candidate Mitt Romney's remarks about government dependency continue to dominate headlines. We'll get reaction from the journalists and writers in the Beauty Shop.

But first, a fresh perspective on voting rights. Pennsylvania is still in the middle of a legal battle over the voter ID law. On Tuesday, the State Supreme Court send the law back to a lower court judge for a review. And there's been substantial coverage of how similar laws around the country could depress turnout among different groups in November and the groups often cited are African-Americans, Latinos and the elderly.

Today, though, we want to focus on voting rights for Asian-Americans, and by that we mean people of Indian, Pakistani, Korean, Filipino, Chinese and Japanese origins, among others. According to the Pew Research Center, they are the fastest growing population group in the country and, our next guest says, face unique obstacles to voting.

Glenn Magpantay is director of the democracy program at the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and he's with us now. Thanks so much for joining us.

GLENN MAGPANTAY: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Your organization, ALDEF, is backing the lawsuit to block Pennsylvania's voter ID law. Why is that?

MAGPANTAY: You know, Michel, we wanted to make sure that the court understood that the growing Asian-American population in Pennsylvania and in other states across the country really shouldn't be disenfranchised by these laws which reportedly are supposed to guard against voter fraud. But there have been no instances of voter fraud in the state of Pennsylvania.

MARTIN: OK, but what are your instances, or what is your evidence as to why this law would disenfranchise Asian-Americans?

MAGPANTAY: You know, for Asian-Americans it's similar with other racial and ethnic minority groups, particularly Chinese-Americans who are new citizens, who may be employed in low wage industries or sweat shops or garment factories. We find that Asian-Americans, like other African-American and Latino voters, lack similar forms of identification.

Forms like naturalization certificates can be very expensive to obtain. There is a concern and a problem with the conjunction of Asian-American names. Poll workers will see the names be inverted, where last names become surnames and poll workers are unfamiliar with those names. Asian-Americans have a more difficult time trying to express themselves and trying to engage the political process.

MARTIN: To that end, let me just play a short clip, because we put up a call-out for listeners on Facebook to ask them if they had had a personal experience with this and here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO CLIP)

HUJIN YUN: My name is Hujin Yun(ph) and I do run into a lot of problems when it comes to my name. A lot of people assume that the second part of my name is my middle name. So I get a lot of Hi See Yun(ph). I also get hyphens, dashes, I mean you name it. And recently with voting in the primaries, the way that they had my name registered was not how it really is or how I have it in any of my documentation.

So it didn't match. Had it not been for Minnesota's same day registration, being able to show my driver's license, my voter registration card - I don't think I could be able to vote if voter ID is in place.

MARTIN: What about that? Do you have evidence that this is a widespread issue?

MAGPANTAY: Yeah. You know, every year we run a multilingual voter survey and poll monitoring project, and time and time again we get so many complaints from Chinese, Korean, Indian, Bangladeshi voters saying that my name was not on the list, I was told that I look too foreign or that because I don't speak English I need to provide additional forms of identification.

And so we found a number of instances in which poll workers have racially profiled Asian-Americans because of the way they look, because of their language, because they, quote, "don't look like they're from here."

MARTIN: What about the whole question of language assistance? Sometimes people have difficulty expressing themselves or making it clear to poll workers about exactly what is the proper way to spell their names, or at least rectifying incorrect information. Could you talk a little bit more about that, about the need for language assistance?

MAGPANTAY: Michel, the country is becoming so much more diverse in its electorate. We are so much more of a multicultural society. And the Federal Voting Rights Act understands the dynamic and diversity of America today. And a number of cities and counties are required under the Voting Rights Act to translate ballots into voting - into Asian-American languages, or Spanish or Native American languages.

What we found is that some elections have mis-translated ballots. In one election they flipped the party headings and so Democrats were listed as Republicans, Republicans as Democrats.

MARTIN: Representatives of other groups who have complained about these laws have made the point that these increased demands for additional forms of ID - there is the belief that the groups that will be most affected by this are less likely to vote for Republicans. But you know what? As you've pointed out, as others have pointed out, Asian-Americans are a very diverse group and they are politically diverse, right? So why do you think they would do that?

MAGPANTAY: You know, America has changed a lot in the last 20, 30 years. Those who run our elections have not. It's a particular demographic, you know, who remember an America of a particular era and there isn't the cultural competency or diversity that exists in the poll site as there exists in America today.

The 2008 election, one poll worker said: I don't trust them because they all look like terrorists. Another poll worker said that Sikh, you know, south Asian voters, because they all look alike, he couldn't tell them apart, and so they all had to vote by provisional ballot. We were appalled at instances like this on Election Day.

The goal that we have in America today is making sure that the electorate can exercise their opinions at the voting booth and proclaim what they want to see from government. When we do these, you know, little things that try to disenfranchise people, to keep people out, these little dirty tricks, that's wrong. And our community won't stand for it.

MARTIN: But isn't citizenship a basic requirement of being able to vote?

MAGPANTAY: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

MARTIN: So why shouldn't people be required to prove their basic eligibility?

MAGPANTAY: Ah. Let me just be clear that people must be citizens of the United States, that they must swear by affidavit under penalty of perjury and imprisonment and fine that they are a citizen. So non-citizens cannot vote in the elections. What a number of states like Alabama, Georgia and Arizona have done, is that they have made it a requirement for voters to have documentary proof of United States citizenship.

So if you have a birth certificate from another country, that could be used against you, even though you have naturalized. You know, when most citizens naturalize, they get a certificate with their photo, you know, with a fingerprint, with a statement on the certificate that says you may not copy this form for non-legal purposes.

That certificate goes into the bank. You're not going to mail it to some, you know, clerk or some office - a PO Box and say, oh, yeah, I'm going to get it back. How many of us are going to mail our credit cards or passports in the mail and assume that we're going to get it back?

MARTIN: Glenn Magpantay is the director of democracy program at the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or ALDEF. He was kind enough to join us from NPR's bureau in New York. Mr. Pagpantay, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MAGPANTAY: Okay, Michel. Thanks.

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