The addition of Bengali-language ballots at 60 polling sites in Queens in New York comes nearly two years after the federal government ordered the city to provide language assistance to South Asian minorities under a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The federal government had previously ordered the citys English ballots to be translated into Spanish and more recently into Chinese in 1993 and Korean in 2001.
The delay in the appearance of Bengali ballots prompted advocates for South Asian voters to sue the citys Board of Elections over what they called its repeated failure to provide adequate language assistance in elections until now.
"The Board's bureaucratic foot-dragging has prevented many Bengali-speaking Americans with limited English proficiency from being able to fully exercise their right to vote," said Seema Agnani, executive director of the Chhaya Community Development Corporation, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The Supreme Court last week struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that has forced New York to seek federal approval for any proposed electoral change since the early 1970s.
But other provisions of the act, which remain intact, continue to require the city to provide bilingual assistance. The lawsuit against the elections board, which was filed in the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, said that the board failed to provide Bengali ballots for the November 2012 election despite assurances to community groups. Valerie Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the Board of Elections, whose 10 members are approved by the City Council, said the board had always intended to meet its obligations under the voting act.
She added that the city had taken other steps to assist South Asian voters in recent elections, which included distributing handouts with the names of candidates translated into Bengali, providing interpreters in Bengali, Hindi and Punjabi at select polling sites, and advertising coming elections in a Bengali-language newspaper.
"A working group that included city officials and community groups then determined that ballots should be translated into Bengali at specific polling sites and that other language assistance should be offered," said Vazquez She said the board had previously told advocates that the Bengali ballots would not be ready until the vendor that produced the ballots made technical adjustments to its software.
Glenn D Magpanta, one of the lawyers involved in the suit said that the board's efforts so far had been inadequate and that there was no guarantee that the Bengali ballots would be available in September.