Susan J. Demas
After the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) sued the city of Hamtramck for violating the federal Voting Rights Act, a court order and consent decree have been issued, calling for the metro Detroit city to provide a more ethnically diverse elections environment.
“I am really happy to hear that this agreement was reached,” said Rahima Begum, the plaintiff. “For many years I struggled to vote because I couldn’t understand the ballot and needed the help of my children to translate it. Not only would having the ballots translated and Bengali poll workers help me, but it will also benefit many other Bengalis who are unable to vote due to a language barrier. I am confident that it will encourage more people to vote and participate in the democratic system.”
The matter stems from how the March 2020 state presidential primary election was carried in Hamtramck. Mehruba Akhtar, an AALDEF board member, had observed language access issues, including the lack of translators and Bengali signage at polling places. She saw that while the election had both Democratic and Republican primaries, only Republican Bengali ballots were on the table. When she inquired about the Democratic primary ballots, she was met with “rudeness and a lack of cooperation from the poll workers.” Democratic primary Bengali ballots were hidden under the table, she learned.
A call and email to Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski was not returned.
Hamtramck was once largely composed of residents of Polish descent. However, today the 22,000-person city is about 21% Bangladeshi.
The lack of voter access has been a concern for several years, AALDEF said. In 2011, the federal government required the city government to provide Bengali language assistance during elections. Social justice organizations Detroit Action, Rising Voices as well as others later met with former City Clerk August Gitschlag to discuss ways to make the ballot more accessible. They urged Gitschlag to hire bilingual poll workers but that did happen, according to AALDEF.
“Building Black and Brown power means both removing barriers to participation faced by Black and Brown voters as well as creating and safeguarding community access to the election process so we can meaningfully access our democracy,” said Branden Snyder, Detroit Action executive director. “Detroit Action and Rising Voices know that local elections are critical to creating the conditions necessary for equitable access to resources, and given the efforts to curtail voting rights, we see this as an important step in the fight to ensure that everyone can meaningfully access the ballot in all of our cities. We’re proud to support our Asian-American members in Hamtramck.”
Following filing of the complaint in federal court, AALDEF carried out negotiations with the city of Hamtramck and a consent decree was reached. The Hamtramck City Council convened an emergency meeting to approve the terms of the deal on June 30. City officials are required to:
- Create a language access advisory group comprised of community groups, including Detroit Action and Rising Voices who work with Hamtramck’s Bengali-speaking community
- Meet with the advisory group in advance of future elections and hire a Bengali elections program coordinator
- Assign at least one Bengali speaking bilingual poll worker to each of Hamtramck’s seven voting precincts and at least one Bengali interpreter will be assigned to each of the city’s four poll sites, including two interpreters at the city’s community center poll site
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