Voting rights advocates in Texas say the Lone Star State and its largest city are flouting state and federal election laws and thereby suppressing the votes of Asian-Americans. On Friday, a coalition of groups held a press conference on the alleged voter suppression at work in Harris County.
The controversy stems from the presence of Korean language translators at a polling site two Sundays ago. Such translators have been allowed to do their work unimpeded for years. During early voting this year, however, municipal and state election officials used a controversial interpretation of the rules to keep those translators away.
Dona Kim Murphey organized the group of volunteer interpreters who were recently denied the ability to help voters at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center in Houston. During the press conference, Murphey summed up the controversy.
“We faced some challenges offering translation services to the Korean-American community–which is a very sizeable community here in Houston,” she said. “We attempted to offer translation services–as we have for about the last decade–inside the facility as Korean voters were coming in and we were told that we were not to solicit people, as if we were selling something.”
Murphey continued, noting that the attempted translation services weren’t exactly sprung on anyone.
“We had actually invited everybody here,” she noted. “We had extensively advertised in the Korean print media. We had sent out texts to our community through Korean civic organizations and we had invited everyone to join us and we had told them that we would be here to offer Korean translation services to make the process more accessible to those people who do not speak English fluently. And the folks here decided that we are not allowed to do that.”
Murphey then described the problem for the poll workers who kicked them out:
They were worried that because they could not understand our language, we could be electioneering, and they told us as such. They asked us to move beyond the 100-foot electioneering line and in that process actually asked the law enforcement here to come help facilitate that move–which was devastating for us. We took our Sundays off to offer to translate for people in our community as volunteers and we were being treated like we were criminals.
The advocates were resolute and pressed their case with various county and state officials. But, each step of the way, Texas authorities decided against them.
According to Murphey, advocates were told by the Harris County Clerk, then the Harris County Attorney, and finally the Texas Secretary of State that foreign language translators are no longer allowed to approach voters and offer to translate for them. This effectively means that if you’re not English language proficient, and you want to vote in most places in Texas, well, too bad–because Texas isn’t mandated to provide such services in all jurisdictions.
Voting rights advocates are incensed about the sudden change. And some say this decision to bar translators from offering their help to voters may contradict a federal court order and the state’s own election laws.
At issue are two provisions in the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the Texas Election Code–and how they relate to one another. In a case stylized as OCA Greater-Houston v. Texas, the Fifth Circuit of Appeals found that Texas Election Code §61.003 “flatly contradict[s] Section 208” of the VRA.
Essentially, the law cited by Texas prohibits “loitering” or “electioneering” within 100 feet of a polling place. The way this statute has sometimes been applied is materially in tension with the safeguards provided by the VRA. But now, despite the court order attempting to clarify the matter, Texas officials are citing the statute to deny voters affirmative access to foreign language interpretation.
Law&Crime reached out to Harris County and the Texas Secretary of State for comment on this story, but no response was forthcoming at the time of publication.
A joint statement issued by a coalition of 24 voting rights organizations regarding the apparent sidestepping of the federal court order notes:
Section 208 interpreters that are not loitering or electioneering within the 100 foot zone, are not prohibited from that space, and any formal or informal policy requiring all interpreters to be removed from such space, is an arbitrary restriction on [limited English proficient] voters, not supported by any provision of federal, state, or municipal law. In the absence of charges of loitering or electioneering, there is no legal basis to remove interpreters from this space.
Steven Wu is an organizer with OCA Greater-Houston.
During an interview with Law&Crime, he said that Texas and Harris County officials are making a basic mistake of interpretation by barring foreign language translators.
“They’re misinterpreting their own election code,” he said. “The code is black and white and they’re lumping another activity in under electioneering and loitering that just doesn’t fit. It’s a pretty simple issue at this point.”
Wu also called out the local officials who insisted on removing foreign language interpreters.
“Houston and Harris County keep highlighting our welcoming and diverse city and communities,” Wu said. “And community organizations have been more than meeting the community’s needs halfway for language assistance and other needs during the voting process. It’s time for Harris County to do the same and not put any more barriers in place.”
As our interview concluded, Wu made the discrepancy, as community and voting rights advocates see it, quite clear:
You celebrate our culture, but you’re denying us our basic voting rights. Besides flatly disregarding your own election codes, you’re disregarding your own people’s civil rights.
[image via Jessica McGowan/Getty Images]