Among Fears of Voter Intimidation, Community Groups Prep to Monitor Polls

Volunteers from Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) conduct exit polling in 2000.

Volunteers from Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) conducted exit polling of Asian-American voters in 2000, and plan to do the same for today's midterm elections. Courtesy Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)

Amid threats of voter intimidation, Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) nonpartisan groups have been training poll monitors across the country, teaching them what to look for to ensure no one is denied the right to vote on Election Day.

From New York to Illinois to California, hundreds of volunteers and nonprofit staffers are expected to take up posts at voting precincts with significant AAPI populations, keeping an eye on paid poll workers who do everything from inspecting IDs in some states, to handing out provisional ballots when a voter’s name is not on the register.

The groups involved say they will ensure election workers comply with state and federal law in counties that require distribution of printed materials, included ballots, in languages other than English, and that limited English proficient voters in those counties have access to interpreters.

They will also observe partisan poll watchers to ensure their actions don’t amount to intimidation, and that voters can bring whomever they want into the voting booth to assist them, so long as it’s not an employer or union representative.

Still, Jerry Vattamala, director of the democracy program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), told NBC News he’s fairly certain litigation will arise based on what they observe on Nov. 8.

“We hope there are no problems,” he said. “But there’s rhetoric, and some of the claims and assertions leading up to the election are encouraging the worst actors to come out in full force and intimidate eligible voters.”

AALDEF is one of a number of organizations training poll monitors for Election Day. Others include Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles (Advancing Justice-LA), Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago (Advancing Justice-Chicago), Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus (Advancing Justice-ALC).

With help from organizations in 14 states and Washington D.C., AALDEF will also carry out its nonpartisan exit poll in 12 Asian languages, according to Vattamala and AALDEF. Answering questions will help to not only capture crucial data on AAPI voters, but also reveal problems encountered by voters on Election Day, Vattamala said.

Volunteers from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund conduct exit polling at PS 126 in Manhattan on April 20, 2016. Courtesy of AALDEF

“It’s a massive, massive national effort,” he said. “And the great thing about it is that we can remedy problems right in real time.”

Vattamala said AALDEF will have poll watchers stationed in New York and Massachusetts. In New York City, they’ll be at sites in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens to ensure Asian language assistance is available to voters, as is required by federal law, he said.

That includes Chinese in all three boroughs and Korean and Bengali in Queens, he said.

In Massachusetts, efforts will be focused on Quincy, a city south of Boston with a Chinese population, and Boston’s Chinatown, Vattamala said. A state law passed several years back requires Boston to provide Chinese and Vietnamese language assistance, Vattamala said.

The mandate follows a lawsuit filed by AALDEF 10 years ago, after Chinese voters in Boston’s Chinatown were made to stand in their own line at polling sites, Vattamala said.

In Illinois, Advancing Justice-Chicago will dispatch at least 40 volunteer poll monitors to 90 precincts throughout the Windy City, Advancing Justice-Chicago’s Brandon Lee told NBC News. Depending on what the law requires, monitors will check for bilingual poll workers, as well as for ballots and signage in languages other than English, he said.

Poll watchers will be in Chicago’s Chinatown, as well as the city’s Far North Side and northwest suburbs, both home to a large South Asian community, Lee said.

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In years past, the focus in Chicago has always been on language issues, Lee said. “But this year, we are further emphasizing what intimidation looks like,” he added.

Lee said there’s a real fear that partisan poll monitors, aligned with candidates, may try to intimidate AAPI voters based on their appearance.

“That’s the sort of thing that is not something we’ve necessarily observed before in Chicago,” said Lee, who once served as a poll watcher.

Meanwhile, Advancing Justice-LA and Advancing Justice-ALC will be monitoring polls statewide in California, Deanna Kitamura, director of Advancing Justice-LA’s voting rights project, told NBC News.

Visiting polling locations frequented by AAPI voters, Advancing Justice-LA’s will zero in on eight counties in central and southern California, she said. Most have some language assistance requirement under federal or state law, Kitamura said.

Advancing Justice-ALC, based in San Francisco, will keep watch over voting locations in 17 counties in the central and northern valleys, Kitamura said.

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The monitors will ensure translated materials are properly displayed and bilingual poll workers are accessible in counties with a state or federal requirement, Kitamura said. They will also make sure voter identification is not improperly asked for and that no one is harassed, she said.

As the possibility of voter intimidation looms large, Kitamura said her organization will be conducting training right before Election Day, so that it’s fresh for poll monitors.

“It’s going to be a heightened topic that we discuss, because of some of the rhetoric out there,” she said.

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