When 65-year-old Jin Kwon went to vote on Nov. 6, he asked interpreters with an Asian-American civil rights group to help him and his wife read the ballots they intended to cast.
Kwon, a Korean-American, has limited proficiency in English, and the federal Voting Rights Act gives people like him broad discretion in enlisting an interpreter’s help to cast a ballot.
Georgia law, however, imposes greater restrictions on the use of interpreters in state and local elections. Even though a federal race was on the ballot Kwon wanted to cast, poll workers initially wouldn’t allow him to use an interpreter with the Atlanta chapter of Asian-Americans Advancing Justice, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in Atlanta.
The dispute eventually pulled in a poll manager, the manager’s supervisor and AAAJ’s deputy director before Kwon and his wife were finally allowed to cast their ballot with an interpreter’s help.
On Wednesday, Kwon and AAAJ sued acting Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden to void the state law. The suit, assigned to Judge Timothy Batten of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, also seeks a temporary restraining order that would bar poll workers from enforcing the law in the Dec. 4 runoff. Early voting has already begun.
AAAJ’s legal staff has enlisted pro bono legal help from Brian Sutherland, a former ACLU voting rights lawyer now with Atlanta’s Buckley Beal, and a team of attorneys from Atlanta’s Alston & Bird.
Unlike the federal voting law, Georgia law currently limits interpreters assisting voters with language difficulties to those who are registered to vote in the same precinct as the person needing help or who are members of a voter’s immediate family. It also limits interpreters to assisting no more than 10 people at the polls.
The federal Voting Rights Act provides far wider latitude, allowing voters with limited proficiency in English or who can’t read or write their choice of an interpreter or assistant as long as the helper is not a representative of a voter’s employer or a union to which they may belong.
Georgia law isn’t supposed to supercede the federal Voting Rights Act as long as there is a candidate for federal office on the ballot. But the Dec. 4 runoff only includes state and local candidates, and some poll workers still tried to wrongly apply the state restrictions during the midterm election, the lawsuit contends.
Kwon said through an interpreter when the suit was announced Wednesday that neither he nor his wife understand English well. Their children live out of state and he doesn’t know any other registered voters in his DeKalb County precinct who speak Korean who can help him vote. That is why he said he turned to AAAJ for an interpreter.
"Advancing Justice-Atlanta has been on the ground working with voters of color and encouraging them to be part of the civic process,” Phi Nguyen, litigation director at AAAJ, said in announcing the lawsuit. “However, language barriers persist as an obstacle for Latino-Americans and Asian-American Pacific Islanders ... to meaningfully participate in this process.”
“We should be making it as easy as possible for everyone to vote, not excluding people,” she said.
Only Gwinnett County provides interpreters for voters, and that’s only for Spanish, the AAAJ said. The organization estimates that more than 500,000 Georgia citizens have limited proficiency in English, most of whom are Asian-American or Latino.
Christopher Laping, a staff attorney at AAAJ in Los Angeles, called the state law “absolutely unconstitutional” and a “draconian rule that restricts the voting power of the growing populations of Latinos and Asian American Pacific Islander in Georgia by taking away the only option for language assistance for many in the state.”
The organization ran a language assistance program for voters with limited English proficiency for the November election, recruiting and training volunteers fluent in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese and Hindi. Voters could arrange to meet an interpreter at their polling place to assist in casting a ballot. The organization also stationed interpreters at some polling places to provide spot language assistance for voters who needed it.
The suit is not the first one AAAJ has filed challenging Georgia election laws. The organization is a plaintiff in an ongoing case challenging a state law requiring that voter registrations exactly match voter names in databases kept both by the state Department of Driver Services and the U.S. Social Security Administration.
In that case, also in Georgia's Northern District, Judge Eleanor Ross issued a temporary restraining order on Nov. 5 directing then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp—now Georgia’s Republican governor-elect—to restore more than 3,000 voter registrations because they had been flagged as possible noncitizens. Most were newly-minted U.S. citizens.
The suit seeks to prohibit future application of the exact match program, which civil rights organizations contend placed more than 53,000 voter registrations—the majority of them minority voters—in limbo in the run-up to the midterm election.