Politics: Watching the Poll Watchers

June 13, 2012

When I arrived at the polling place shortly after 7 am, two teenage girls I was supposed to meet were already there, busily
scribbling notes as they studied multilingual signs taped to the wall. Roaming
around the tiny gymnasium, they examined stacks of election materials and
counted voting booths. Every few minutes, they conferred with each other in
hushed tones, and then jotted down their findings on a checklist. Their goal
for this June 5 California primary election was to identify and document any
obstacles to voting, particularly for Asian Americans with limited English

Ky Duyen Hoang and Diep Huynh were excused from their
morning high school classes so that they could serve as poll monitors.
Ironically, they have never cast a ballot, and they have probably never
set foot inside a polling place before. Only Hoang is of voting age, and
neither she nor Huynh are citizens. They both immigrated from communist
Vietnam less than five years ago. Yet here they stood, scrutinizing the
mechanisms of American democracy, looking to  secure a vote for everybody
entitled to one.

We were inside a rec center in Oakland’s San Antonio
district, home to a large Vietnamese population, along with many other Asian
communities and a sizeable Latino and African American contingent. The dozen or
so poll workers on duty reflected those demographics, and several wore badges
indicating their ability to speak different languages. In addition to this
personal support, written explanations and instructions in Spanish, Chinese,
Tagalog and Vietnamese appeared on all sorts of posters and pamphlets arranged
throughout the gym. Piles of bilingual ballots sat ready for use. This polling
place seemed sufficiently equipped to handle the needs of nearby residents.

Few residents, however, took advantage, at least
while we were there. In the hour the girls and I spent at the rec center, I saw only two voters pass through, a surprisingly low number considering that this
polling place covered two precincts. On our way out, I asked a poll worker about the
turnout. Based on his previous experience at the site, he predicted they might
end up getting 100 voters total, “if we’re lucky.”

Admittedly, primaries typically generate lukewarm
interest, and this one lacked a major draw. Republican presidential candidate
Mitt Romney officially wrapped up his party’s nomination in Texas on May 29,
nullifying the importance of the biggest race on the California primary ballot.
This could have potentially dampened voter enthusiasm in the San Antonio
district, given what I was recently told by a young Vietnamese American school
teacher who claimed that the older generation tends to register Republican.

While Vietnamese voters of any party might not have
strong reason to care about the contests in this primary, the inclusion of
Vietnamese language assistance alone should be some cause for excitement. June
5 marked the debut of such assistance in Oakland and throughout the rest of
Alameda County. Brought on thanks to federal law, this new development
dramatically boosts the Vietnamese community’s political prospects. The county
has roughly 20,000 eligible Vietnamese American voters, but less than half of
them can navigate a ballot in English, according to the Census Bureau.
Therefore, introducing a bilingual ballot effectively doubles their community’s
electoral power.

Part of Hoang and Huynh’s duty was to safeguard that
power. Their new role represented a far cry from the life they knew as kids. As
we strolled over to a second polling place, they discussed the contrast between
their homeland and the United States, and Hoang revealed that people get thrown
in jail for saying bad things about the government in Vietnam. But when you
monitor polls, you can easily end up saying bad things about the government.
You are actually obliged to do so in certain unfortunate situations.

Such situations have played out in Alameda County in
the past. Complaints by residents prompted the Department of Justice (DOJ) to
sue the county in 2010 for failing to adequately provide mandatory voting
assistance in Chinese and Spanish, after a similar suit in 1995 (regarding
shortcomings with Chinese assistance only).

For this election, the potential for complications
bumped up a notch with the addition of assistance not only in Vietnamese, but
in Tagalog as well. Given the county’s track record, many eyes were watching to
see if problems occur again. The DOJ announced intentions to monitor polls
here, and civil rights organization Asian Law Caucus (ALC) conscripted many
poll monitors of its own, including Hoang and Huynh.

Our next destination turned out to be a private
residence, and the strangest polling place I’m sure I’ll ever see. Voting
booths and information tables crowded a small, dark foyer featuring stained
glass windows, purple tapestries, and a bighorn sheep’s head mounted over an
ornate bar that looked like it came straight out of an old Western saloon. Three of the five
poll workers here spoke Vietnamese, which seemed like more than enough to
accommodate the meager traffic. During our roughly 45-minute visit, no
Vietnamese voters dropped by. A middle-aged Japanese woman did, and the girls
asked her if she ever experienced voter discrimination, and she answered no.

Generally, people envision voter discrimination as an
overt and malicious attempt to block access to the polls. Sometimes, though, it
just occurs by accident. This was what happened before in Alameda County, as I
learned from Carlo De La Cruz, the coordinator of ALC’s poll monitoring
efforts. He explained that with the county’s limited resources, it has had
trouble serving the whole spectrum of its incredibly diverse electorate, and
inadvertently neglected the needs of certain folks who simply got lost in the

“We’re not saying that Alameda County was racist
toward Asian American voters and that they were trying to disenfranchise [those
voters],” he said, “But the effect was still the same, where Asian American
voters couldn’t vote to their fullest potential.”

To what extent the county has been able to address
this injustice remains an open question, since it could still improve on the
way it holds elections overall. This was rather evident at the third and final
polling place on Hoang and Huynh’s list. We found it at a Catholic elementary
school, inside a stark and cavernous utility room. A mild tension filled the
air, something I did not notice at the previous sites, but then this one had a
steadier stream of voters passing through. The girls approached an older Asian
woman on her way out. After a brief exchange, she jerked a thumb in the
direction of the poll workers and grumbled, “They don’t know what they’re
doing.” Later, Hoang and Huynh mentioned to me that two Vietnamese poll workers
here said they felt confused about their duties.

The girls were not the only ones observing all this.
DOJ sent four poll monitors to this location as well. Dressed in conservative
business attire, they were probably three times the age of their ALC
counterparts. They hovered close to the action, armed with clipboards and
stony-faced stares. In response to my attempts at conversation, I was given a phone
number for official press inquiries. These people had no use for idle chatter.
They intimidated me, actually, but the poll workers did not seem to pay the DOJ people
much attention.

DOJ continued to stay tight-lipped
following the election, too. The next day, I dialed the press hotline and spoke
with a public affairs representative who declined to comment on the
department’s findings. ALC, on the other hand, issued a press release before the
polls closed. It claimed to have uncovered “deficiencies” that “made it more
difficult to cast a ballot for voters with limited proficiency in English.”

I left a message with the registrar of voters asking
for that office's take, but no one got back to me. However, I did reach Lai Van
Luu, a community member who the county recruited to help with voter outreach
leading up to the election. He informed me via email that all the Vietnamese
people he talked to reported having a pleasant voting experience.

None of this captured a definitive sense of how well
Alameda County served the Vietnamese electorate on the June 5 primary. However,
based on what I witnessed in Oakland that day, the community appeared to be
receiving some pretty valuable support. Hoang and Huynh also endorsed this view and
offered positive opinions once we wrapped up our tour. Of course,
receiving support does not mean much if you do not do something with it.

“I think [there was] a lot of assistance in
Vietnamese, but I didn’t see any Vietnamese who were voting,” Hoang said.



This post is part of Hyphen Politics, an ongoing series that looks at where Asian America and politics
intersect in the run-up to the 2012 general election.