By Mee Moua
Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice
Many don’t think of voting rights and accessing the ballot as a critical concern for the Asian American community. But without the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was signed into law 50 years ago this Thursday, many Asian Americans wouldn’t be able to vote.
The VRA has protected Asian Americans against discrimination in voting. Poll workers often see Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners,” targeting them to prove their citizenship as an added hurdle to accessing the ballot box. The most infamous example of this was in the town of Bayou La Batre, Alabama in 2004.
In the primary, Asian American voters turned out to vote for a Vietnamese American Phuong Tan Huynh, who was running to become the first Asian American councilman in Bayou La Batre. His opponent in the primary was a White, Alabama native named J.E. “Jackie” Ladnier.
Under Alabama state law, a campaign can challenge the qualifications of any voter. When Asian Americans went to vote, Ladnier and his supporters accused them of not qualifying because of their citizenship status, residency and felony convictions. According to Mr. Ladnier, “they couldn’t speak good English, they possibly weren’t American citizens.”
As a result, fifty Asian American voters were unable to cast their ballots through the electronic machines. Instead, they had to fill out paper ballots and have that ballot vouched for by a registered voter. In requiring Asian Americans to take this extra step, Asian Americans felt intimidated about exercising their vote.
The Department of Justice (DOJ), under the charge of the VRA, later investigated the city council election in Bayou La Batre and found that Ladnier’s campaign was racially motivated. When the time came for the general election, the DOJ prohibited challengers from interfering, leading to Huynh’s election.
Bayou La Batre isn’t the first or last time Asian Americans have been questioned about their citizenship before being able to vote. In the same year, poll workers in numerous New York poll sites demanded requests for identification from Asian American voters, going so far at one poll site of asking for naturalization certificates. In 2012, a poll worker at a precinct in Minnesota insisted that a group of elderly Hmong American voters provide identification, which is not required by law, while telling a white male in line behind him that he did not need his identification to vote.
The VRA has also made voting easier for people who have difficulty speaking English. Nearly half of Asian American adults are limited English proficient, and two key sections of the Voting Right Act have made it possible for many Asian Americans to participate in our democracy.
Section 203 requires that language assistance be available at the polls in certain jurisdictions and Section 208 allows a voter to bring someone into the voting booth to help them. For Asian Americans who have trouble speaking English, these two sections give them access to an interpreter and translated materials such as an in-language ballot.
As the Asian American population continues to grow rapidly – faster than any other racial group in the country – it’s especially important that the VRA continues to protect our ability to access the ballot. But for all the good the VRA has done in the past 50 years, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the law in 2013, and now, the right to vote is more in danger than at any time in the past half century.
What’s most concerning is that states in which we are seeing the most rapidly growing Asian American population are also passing the most harmful attacks on voting in state legislatures. For example, immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013, North Carolina, which has the third-fastest growing Asian American population in the country, passed a multitude of strict voting restrictions.
Unless Congress passes legislation that restores the VRA, the Asian American vote could be in danger in the 2016 election and all elections to come. On this 50th Anniversary of the VRA, we call on all members of Congress to defend the right to vote, restore the VRA and preserve the ability of all Americans to participate in our democracy.