Texas law on voting interpreter blocked

Updated: 2016-08-17 11:09

By Paul Welitzkin in New York(China Daily USA)

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A ruling by a federal judge will enable residents of Texas with little or no understanding of English to have any interpreter help them on election day in the voting booth.

US District Judge Robert Pittman on Aug 12 blocked a Texas state law that required interpreters to be registered to vote in the same county as the person they are helping.

"We brought this case because we found that this disproportionately affected Asian Americans," Jerry Vattamala of the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) said in an interview.

Vattamala said the AALDEF filed a lawsuit in 2015 on behalf of Mallika Das, an Indian-American voter who was prevented from receiving assistance from her son in an election in 2014 because he was not a registered voter in the county where she was registered. Saurabh Das was registered in a neighboring county.

"I am happy that the court has sided with Asian-American voters and protected their rights under federal law to receive assistance from persons of their choice. I hope that this decision will allow more Asian Americans to vote for many elections to come. My mother would have been pleased to see this outcome," he said in a statement. His mother died in the course of the lawsuit.

Pittman ruled that the residency requirement violated Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees voters the right to be helped by a person of their choice if they need assistance because of a physical disability like blindness or the inability to read or write.

To enjoy the same opportunity to vote as other citizens, Pittman said voters with limited language abilities must be able to navigate polling stations and communicate with election officials.

Asian-American voters benefit from Section 208 because most jurisdictions in Texas are not required to provide Asian-language interpreters under the Voting Rights Act, said Vattamala. Section 208 allows voters with limited proficiency in English to be assisted by their friends or family members inside the voting booth, regardless of the citizenship or voter registration status of the assistor.

Vattamala said the ruling applies to all voters in Texas ,including Hispanics and other minorities. "We found that Asian Americans usually rely on family members to help them with voting," he said.

In April, the AALDEF reached a settlement with Williamson County, Texas, where Mallika Das was registered to vote. Vattamala said the state can appeal Pittman's decision.

"We are not aware of any other state that has this interpreter requirement," said Vattamala.

Voting rights have emerged as an issue in the 2016 election. In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which required mostly Southern states with a history of discrimination to receive federal approval to change election laws. The court decision made it easier for states to impose new restrictions.

At least 15 states including some that may be important in deciding the presidential race are set to have regulations involving voter identification or other requirements.