Hamtramck, Michigan, settles Voting Rights Act lawsuit on Bengali language assistance

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South Asian American voters sue city of Hamtramck, MI for alleged voting rights violations. Photo: AALDEF Facebook

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)’s lawsuit against the City of Hamtramck over providing Bengali language information and assistance in compliance with the Voting Rights Act (VRA) has been resolved.

In a July 6, 2021, press release, AALDEF announced an agreement had been reached with the City to provide Bengali language information and assistance.

The City Council convened an emergency meeting to approve the terms of a negotiated Consent Decree on June 30, 2021.

“I am really happy to hear that this agreement was reached,” said limited English proficient plaintiff Rahima Begum, as translated by one of her children, quoted in the press release.

“For many years I struggled to vote because I couldn’t understand the ballot and needed the help of my children to translate it. Not only would having the ballots translated and Bengali poll workers help me, but it will also benefit many other Bengalis who are unable to vote due to a language barrier. I am confident that it will encourage more people to vote and participate in the democratic system,” Rahim Begun added.

“AALDEF applauds Hamtramck’s speedy resolution of this Complaint, and its commitment to meeting the needs of its Bengali speaking voters going forward, which is especially noteworthy at a time when access to voting around the country is under attack,” Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, senior staff attorney with AALDEF’s Democracy Program, is quoted saying in the press release.

“With this Consent Decree, Bangladeshi American voters achieved progress toward equality at the polls,” she added.

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires equal access to voting for people with limited English, as determined by the census, “but that was not happening here for the Bangladeshi community,” Lorenzo-Giguere said, especially since the local Census Information Center data shows this community constitutes over 20% of the city’s population, she noted.

Before the lawsuit filed by it, AALDEF said, Hamtramck’s former City Clerk had failed to provide access to Bengali ballots, provide adequate numbers of Bengali speaking poll workers or interpreters, and had an English-only elections website from which Hamtramck’s English-speaking residents can easily obtain election information.

Hamtramck was notified of its obligations under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act in 2011 when the Director of the Bureau of Census announced that Hamtramck, Michigan was covered for Bengali language assistance.

As a result, the City of Hamtramck was required to provide translated ballots, voting materials, and oral language assistance in Bengali.

In April 2020, AALDEF sent a letter to the former city clerk, August Gitschlag, alerting the City to alleged violations under Section 203, ahead of its 2020 special election to fill the late Representative Isaac Robinson’s seat of Michigan’s 4th House District (including Hamtramck).

However, the City’s 2020 primary and general elections continued to be inaccessible to many of its Bengali speaking voters, AALDEF said.

“After 10 years of Section 203 coverage, and a year after specific notification of Section 203 violations without any response from the former city clerk, AALDEF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Detroit Action, and Rahima Begum, a limited English proficient (LEP) Bangladeshi American voter,” the press release said.

In this Consent Decree filed with federal court, the City of Hamtramck has agreed to the following:

  1. To completely and accurately translate all election-related material, including ballots, information, instructions, and announcements, including their website, into Bengali.
  2. To assign at least one Bengali speaking bilingual poll worker to each of Hamtramck’s seven voting precincts and at least one Bengali interpreter will be assigned to each of the City’s four poll sites, including two interpreters at the Community Center poll site.
  3. To hire a Bengali Elections Program Coordinator who will coordinate all facets of Hamtramck’s Bengali Elections Program.
  4. To establish a Bengali Language Advisory Group which will provide feedback to the Program Coordinator and the City Clerk on the effectiveness of the language assistance and how best to provide election-related materials and assistance to the LEP Bengali-speaking community.

The Consent Decree applies to all elections conducted by the City going forward. According to AALDEF, this allows enough time to implement the provisions of the Consent Decree for the Primary Election being held on August 3, 2021.

Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter was pro bono co-counsel in this lawsuit. Both AALDEF and Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter did not seek the attorneys’ fees to which they were entitled.

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