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The city violated the federal Voting Rights Act by acting too slowly on a 2011 requirement to provide ballots in a South Asian language and delaying them until 2013, according to a complaint filed by a nonprofit this week.
The federal government determined in October that the city Board of Elections was required to provide a South Asian language on ballots in certain areas in Queens and around the city, yet the city dragged its feet for months before settling on Bengali as the chosen tongue and hiring a contractor to update the software on the electronic ballot readers, according to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed the complaint with the board.
The city has chalked up the delay to technical difficulties and has offered to provide other Bengali language assistance at the polls this fall to compensate for the delay, a Board of Elections spokeswoman said.
Queens has a significant population of Bengali speakers concentrated in neighborhoods like Flushing and Richmond Hill, where about 62 percent of voting age residents are not English proficient, the nonprofit said. The delays mean those potential voters could miss state, federal and presidential elections this week and in November.
“We believe this is illegal, period,” said Glenn Magpantay, a director at the fund, which advocates for Asian-American civil rights. “Why was the Board of Elections asleep at the wheel?”
A spokesman for the state Board of Elections said the city still has options to provide Bengali ballots for the fall elections and be in compliance with the law. Poll sites could issue ballots in Bengali which could be counted by hand, circumventing the need to update voting machines.
It is also possible to use the Bengali ballots with the current software, according to the state, though the city BOE did not respond to comment on this issue by presstime.
The Voting Rights Act stipulates that if a certain area is populated with enough citizens who are not proficient in English, then language assistance must be provided to them.
Several South Asian tongues are spoken in Queens, and the board settled on Bengali in April, about six months after the requirement was announced, according to the nonprofit. The city also waited until June 25 to sign a contract with a company to make the software changes, knowing that any modifications to the voting machines must go through a three-month review process by the state Board of Elections, according to the nonprofit.
A Board of Elections spokeswoman contended the contractor was notified April 11.
The delay until 2013 shocked the fund and other nonprofits when it was announced at an Aug. 22 meeting, and the board subsequently issued a statement citing that technical difficulties with the contractor, Elections Systems & Software, along with the state review process as reason for the delay.
“There are significant technical difficulties to be overcome in making changes to the ES&S voting systems, and particular issues with placement of the Bengali language on the actual ballot,” the board said in a statement.
But Elections Systems & Software was also hired by the city of Hamtramck, Mich., to incorporate Bengali into the voting machines, and those changes were made in February 2012, about four months after the federal announcement, the fund said.
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.
©2012 Community Newspaper Group
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