By Sarah Ebbott
Amidst the bustling office at the Asian Law Alliance where he works as an immigration attorney, Nick Kuwada described an incident he heard about two years ago that still motivates him today. An elderly Chinese American man waited hours for a bilingual ballot in Alameda County while precinct workers offered little help.
“That was really heartbreaking for me -- to see someone who honestly wanted to participate in our democracy not being able to do so because the voting registrar in the county decided it wasn’t important enough to fix,” Kuwada said in his clear, confident voice. Even here in the Bay Area, a region that prides itself on diversity, immigrant citizens face discrimination at the polls, according to Kawada.
Kuwada is working on two projects in Santa Clara County to insure immigrants’ right to vote during the upcoming Presidential Election: the Voter Protection Project and the Voter Education Project.
In the Voter Protection Project, Kuwada and his colleagues train volunteers to work as poll monitors and assign them to specific precincts for Election Day. These poll monitors observe the election, make sure voters are treated fairly, and confirm that the precinct has enough voting materials—including materials in the voter’s own language.
“There’s still some discrimination that exists when [limited-English speaking] people try to vote,” said Jacqueline Maruhashi, Kuwada’s co-worker at Asian Law Alliance. “If people have a horrible time voting or they feel that they’ve been discriminated against, then the chances of them voting again are less likely.”
The Law Alliance’s Voter Education Project sets the stage for civic involvement by registering people to vote, making phone calls, attending ethnic events and going door-to-door reminding people to vote, as well as more generally informing people about the voting process. Education efforts like these help Asian-Americans - who have a lower voter turnout compared to other minority groups and the national average - to be successful at the polls, Kuwada said.
“People who normally do not vote, who feel like they can’t vote, those are the people we want to access because it’s their voices that are important to be heard,” Kuwada said. “Even if you’re a small community we want to get you energized -- we want you to go out there and vote.”
Discrimination against voters who speak limited English is illegal. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, enacted by Congress in 1975 in response to the link between limited-English proficiency and low voter participation, requires jurisdictions with large numbers of “language minority” voters to provide bilingual voting assistance. Districts with more than five percent or over 10,000 limited-English-speaking, voting-age citizens who speak the same minority language must receive bilingual voting assistance, including bilingual ballots and bilingual poll workers.
Asian Law Alliance poll monitors are also trained to enforce voters’ rights under Section 208, a little-known component of the Voting Rights Act added in 1982. This provision gives limited-English voters the right to bring an aide of their choice into the voting booth to help them vote. This option is especially useful for voters whose language does not qualify for coverage under Section 203.
Because many of the specific components of the Voting Rights Act are not well-known, Kuwada works with other Bay Area organizations like Services Immigrants Rights and Education Network (SIREN) to reach out to limited-English voters who may be isolated. SIREN provides language forums for people in communities to discuss complicated issues about the election and the voting process.
“A lot of times immigrant communities come with a lot of fear,” said Zelica Rodriguez, SIREN Policy Advocacy Program Director. “Our programs are about making sure people aren’t afraid to get involved in any kind of change making.”
Rodriguez has worked with Kuwada on voter outreach over the past few months. “Nick is very committed, smart and effective,” Rodriguez said. “Anytime I’ve asked him to help he is available, and very conscious about being culturally sensitive…he goes above and beyond.”
For Kuwada these efforts won’t end after the Presidential election. “Being an Asian-American is about more than just checking a box,” said Kuwada. “I think it’s important for all of us, no matter where you are or who you are, to see what you can give back to your community. For me, personally, it’s always been really important to see what kind of issues new immigrants face in this community.”
Kuwada said his passion for voters’ rights and immigration advocacy began with his wife, who is a Japanese immigrant.
“I’ve always had these really heated exchanges with my friends about who to vote for and stuff like that and I’ve always felt really passionate about being civically engaged. My wife is from Japan and wasn’t interested in politics at all, so her attitude towards politics was definitely a motivator,” Kuwada said.
Kuwada managed to change his wife’s mind; they watched the 2012 Presidential debates together and have made civic engagement a powerful part of their lives.
The Asian Law Alliance is located at 184 Jackson Street in San Jose. The phone number is (408) 287-9710.
(Sarah Ebbott is an English major at Santa Clara University who wrote this article for Patch.)
Asian Law Caucus Voting Handbook:
Asian Law Caucus Poll Monitoring Report (2011):