Breaking down what they call the barrier of voter
discrimination, student groups of the University’s Asian
American community plan to send student volunteers to monitor
polling sites on election day.

Sponsored by the United Asian American Organizations and the
Asian Pacific American Law Student Association, the project acts as
the Michigan branch of a larger nationwide effort to safeguard
voter rights headed by the Asian American Legal Defense and
Education Fund based in New York.

Student monitors will offer information to voters who experience
problems with voting and conduct exit-polls of minority voters who
feel discriminated against.

While their efforts only add to what will be a host of voter
monitoring in this year’s election, the Asian American
groups’ focus is on the failure of polling institutions to
accommodate minority voters, said the law association’s
political action chair Amrita Mallik.

“Historically, Asians have faced discrimination at the
polls. Traditionally the biggest problem has been a language
barrier issue. Poll sites have failed to provide translators and
ballots written in the voter’s language,” said Mallik,
a second year Law student.

At the same time, the defense fund’s executive director
Margaret Fung said prejudice against Arab Americans in the wake of
the Sept. 11 attacks has translated into an ongoing trend of voter
discrimination for Arabs nationwide.

“Last time we did a small sampling of voters in Detroit
and Hamtramck, there was a number of voters who received
discrimination as a result of Sept. 11,” she said.

Past reports of discrimination include incorrect translations of
ballots for non-English speakers, which mislabeled the Democratic
candidates as Republican and vice-versa, said Fung. Other cases
include Arab voters having to endure racist remarks from polling
officials, said Fung. All of these allegations were a direct
violation of the Voting Rights Act, she added.

This widespread number of past instances of voter discrimination
in different states ignited the need to scrutinize polling sites
and take measures to both guarantee and facilitate
minorities’ rights to vote, Fang said.

Seeking to confront this issue, UAAO co-chair Stephanie Chang
said their voter-monitoring plan will be a “ground-breaking”
endeavor because it is specifically aimed at overturning voting
roadblocks that both Asian and Arab Americans face.

“People are paying attention to the voting rights of
students and other minorities, but not a lot of people are paying
attention to the barriers Asians and Arabs face,” she said.
“When we do this we are trying to bring it in a new direction
by focusing it on them.”

But as the defense fund and its allies prepare for election day,
minority voters in Michigan should not worry about facing
discrimination at the polls, said Kelly Chesney, spokeswoman for
Michigan’s Department of State. “We do not have
evidence that discrimination goes on in Michigan,” she said.
“Instead, we have a history of well-conducted elections in
Michigan.”

Not only are Michigan’s election officials trained to deal
with different ethnic groups, but officials also come from the
communities they are serving and interact with their voters on a
daily basis, Chesney said. “We do sensitivity training and
deal with different populations. Not just different ethnic groups
but people with hearing problems or disabilities of some sorts. We
train them to deal with all situations, not just race,” she
added.

In the meantime, Fung said their workers will monitor the sites
in Michigan and seven other states by offering direct information
to voters who have experienced problems with voting. She also said
they will have a multilingual election hotline to assist voters who
may have encountered problems and if needed, can call a local
attorney to intervene on their behalf. Defense funds attorneys are
also at work checking up on election registration offices to ensure
voters are registered correctly, Fung added.

In tandem, the defense fund hopes to gain voter information from
the project, which could be used as a long-term method to resolve
polling site issues.

Chang said in addition to providing guidance to voters, the 60
to 70 student volunteers from the University will monitor polling
sites in Detroit, Hamtramck, Dearborn and Ann Arbor by conducting
exit-poll surveys, tallying the number of voters who feel they were
discriminated against and for whom they voted.

Having this information can also be used in future litigation if
polling sites show prevalent problems, Mallik said. Ultimately it
will lead to the improved security of minority voting rights, she
added.

“By getting voters to respond to the survey, we will be
collecting important information about Asian American voting
patterns and experiences. This can be used to better serve the
minority community in later elections and ensure that their voices
be heard.”

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