As some Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experienced difficulties voting in California’s primary Tuesday, voter rights advocates and state officials kept a close eye on one northern county amid allegations of voter intimidation leading up to the election.
It was too early to tell what percentage of AAPI voters, who make up 11 percent of California’s total electorate, turned out to cast ballots and for which candidates in the state’s presidential primary. But community organizers say there was considerably more interest among AAPI voters in this year’s presidential race than they’ve seen in years past.
Hillary Clinton, who Monday had already secured a majority of delegates to become the Democratic party’s presumptive nominee, was the projected winner in the Golden State’s primary, defeating Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders 56 percent to 43 percent, with 69 percent of precincts reporting, according to NBC News.
Clinton is projected to receive 317 of the state’s 475 delegates. Sanders, who had projected wins in Montana and North Dakota, is projected to receive 170 delegates in California and vowed to stay in the race and fight all the way to the Democratic National Convention in July.
Donald Trump, already the GOP’s presumptive nominee, also won the California primary, securing 75 percent of the vote with 61 percent of precincts reporting, according to NBC News.
Meanwhile, voter snafus plagued some polling places in California, which also held local, state, and federal primaries and asked voters to weigh in onone state anddozens of local ballot measures, Karin Wang, vice president of programs and communications at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Los Angeles (Advancing Justice - LA), told NBC News.
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Wang said her organization received reports that Koreatown in Los Angeles lacked bilingual poll workers and translated materials. Some voters not registered with a party also encountered difficulty obtaining cross-over ballots to participate in the Democratic presidential primary, a problem reported not only in Koreatown but across the state, Wang said.
California allows no-party-preference voters to cast ballots in what's called amodified closed presidential primary, which the Democratic, American Independent, and Libertarian parties had agreed to this year. The complicated presidential primary rules may have contributed to some of the confusion at polling sites, voter rights advocates said.
Wang said those who couldn’t get cross-over ballots had to vote instead by provisional ballot, which must be filled out and later verified by elections officials.
Thirty-five percent of AAPI voters in the Golden State are without a party affiliation, according to Advancing Justice - LA.
Also creating misunderstandings for some voters, Wang said, were ballots listing the 34 candidates running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Barbara Boxer, who will retire this year. The nearly three-dozen names spanned two sheets of paper, leading some to think they had to select one candidate on each page, Wang said. Ballots with more than one mark would be invalidated.
Voter obstacles also extended to two central California counties where Jonathan Stein, manager of the voting rights program of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Asian Law Caucus (Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus), a nonprofit legal and civil rights organization in San Francisco, visited 30 voting sites with poll monitors.
“We found a lack of translated ballots, we found poorly trained poll workers who were not ready to serve voters with language needs,” Stein told NBC News.
Stein declined to name the counties or provide further details as Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus considers its next moves.
“Our experience showed that California has a long way to go before it can welcome all voters into our democracy and create an electorate that is fully representative of the diversity of our state,” he said.
One of the the biggest causes for concern for AAPI civil rights advocates came out of Siskiyou County, in the northernmost part of the state, where a majority of newly registered Hmong voters did not appear on voter rolls and had to vote instead by provisional ballot, Lori Shellenberger, director of the voting rights project of the American Civil Liberties Union of California, told NBC News.
“This is a refugee community that came to this country to escape oppression, and today they are trying to do the most American thing you can do, cast a ballot and exercise their civic duty to participate in our democracy,” Shellenberger said.
The ACLU of California began receiving phone calls on Friday, saying that Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey had visited Hmong property owners and allegedly questioned them about their voter registration status, Shellenberger said. The voters were told that they were believed to have registered illegally and could be arrested if they tried to cast a ballot, she said.
Because the Hmong live in a rural area of the county, their property is given a parcel number rather than a street address, which was why the voter registrations were allegedly called into question, Shellenberger said. In California, parcel numbers can be used when registering to vote, she said.
While registrations of new Hmong voters were allegedly scrutinized, those of white property owners in the same area who also used parcel numbers were not, Shellenberger added.
Lopey did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News.
It’s unclear exactly how many Hmong live in Siskiyou County, whose total population is 43,554. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there were no Hmong listed as Siskiyou residents, though Wang of Advancing Justice - LA noted that AAPIs are often undercounted in the decennial tally. Shellenberger, who as part of her investigation visited with Hmong residents this past weekend, said some estimates put the county’s Hmong population at more than one thousand.
Following the allegations of voter intimidation, Shellenberger said the ACLU of California reached out to the state attorney general’s office and the secretary of state’s office, which she said dispatched officials to Siskiyou County to observe the election. She also worked with the community to recruit and train around 40 poll monitors, who were stationed throughout the county, Shellenberger said.
“What I have received are consistent reports that the majority of Hmong people showing up to vote are not on the roster,” Shellenberger said. “It’s a very high number.”
As a result, those voters were given provisional ballots, she said.
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The Siskiyou County Registrar of Voters did not immediately return a request for comment. Rachele Huennekens, a spokeswoman for the California attorney general's office, confirmed to NBC News in an email that her office assisted the California secretary of state's office in monitoring polls in Siskiyou County Tuesday.
Shellenberger said several local ballot initiatives in Siskiyou County spurred interest this year among Hmong residents, sending them to register to vote. One measure sought an additional 0.5 percent sales tax to pay for the construction of a new county jail. Two others asked whether more restrictions should be imposed on marijuana cultivation.
According to the Siskiyou County Clerk’s Office, voters supported the sales tax 52 percent to 48 percent, but the measure failed to pass because it did not receive a two-thirds supermajority. The other two initiatives on marijuana passed.
Lopey is in favor of both the tax and the stricter marijuana enforcement rules, positions that Shellenberger said had put the sheriff at odds with some in the Hmong community.
“Our number one priority today was to make sure they got to vote,” Shellenberger said. “Our second priority is to make sure their votes get counted.”
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