NYC Rights Groups Demand Bengali Ballots

     BROOKLYN (CN) - New York City's Board of Elections refuses to provide ballots in Bengali, in violation of the Voting Rights Act, two South Asian groups claim in Federal Court.
     The Alliance of South Asian American Labor, Chhaya Community Development Corp. and registered voter Nadira Khanam claim that Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires "bilingual language assistance that requires a covered jurisdiction to provide election information and assistance to limited English proficient voters so that those voters can effectively and fully participate in the electoral process."
     Queens County has been covered under the provision for Asian Indian language assistance since Oct. 13, 2011, "and is therefore required, among other things, to provide ballots in Bengali, an Asian Indian language," the complaint states.
     But the plaintiffs say the city Board of Elections has refused to provide ballots in Bengali and refused "to make an official public announcement or otherwise adequately confirm that ballots in Bengali will be available for the upcoming New York City mayoral elections, including the mayoral and city council primary scheduled for September 10, 2013 ... despite having numerous opportunities to do so."
     The board also failed to establish a "comprehensive compliance plan for the provision of election information and assistance to Asian Indian voters in Queens County that would, among other things, provide meaningful confirmation that Bengali ballots will be available, despite having a compliance plan for other minority languages for which the board is required to provide assistance," according to the complaint.
     Plaintiff Khanam is a registered voter in Queens County, but her English proficiency is limited, "so she is unable to vote without Bengali language assistance," she says.
     The Alliance of South Asian American Labor was founded in 2008 to help Asian Indian and other South Asian workers in the trade union movement and to improve their economic and social well-being.
     "Many of ASAAL's Queens County chapter members will not be able to effectively or fully participate in the election process without ballots being translated into Bengali," the complaint states.
     "Furthermore, the absence of ballots translated into Bengali in Queens County has already required and will require ASAAL to expend its limited funds and other resources to educate its members and other Asian Indian American voters in Queens County on how to vote - including instructions on what the ballot will look like and how to identify on the ballot important information such as a candidate's name, office sought and political party affiliation."
     Plaintiff Chhaya CDC is a nonprofit dedicated to improving access to housing, resources and information for Asian Indian and other South Asian Americans in New York City.
     "The board's failure to comply with its legal obligations under Section 203 has caused, and will continue to cause unless remedied, Chhaya CDC to suffer legally cognizable injury," the complaint states.
     Queens County was designated by the Director of the Census Bureau as a covered jurisdiction for Asian Indian language assistance.
     As such, "'any registration or voting notice, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots' that the board provides in English must also be provided in an Asian Indian language," the complaint states.
     Despite assurances to do so, the board has not provided Bengali ballots for any of the four elections it has administered since Bengali was selected as the Asian Language for written materials on April 10, 2012.
     "The Board has not provided all the assistance it said it would," plaintiffs claim.
     Mayor Michael Bloomberg is in his last term; a new mayor will be elected Nov. 5.
     Plaintiffs seek an order that the elections board provide ballots and other election materials in Bengali.
     They are represented by Seth Goodchild with Weil, Gotshal & Manges, and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
     A quarter of a billion people speak Bengali, whose homeland in Bangladesh and environs is the most densely populated on Earth.