Global Politics

New York's Bengali voters don't get as much language support as they should

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Bengali is often spoken in this barbershop in Queens, N.Y. (Photo by Nina Porzucki.)

Once a month Zain Ahmed treks from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to a windowless basement shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, just to get his haircut.

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“I take 3 or 4 trains just to get here,” Ahmed said. “That’s dedication, right?”

Ahmed works in finance, as a bond researcher. When it comes to the election, he’s most concerned about the economy and “where we’re headed.” Ahmed is a Democrat, and Tuesday he voted for Obama.

Ahmed was born in the U.S. but his parents are from Bangladesh. He grew up speaking both English and Bengali. For him, language assistance at the polls isn’t an issue. He didn’t even know that Bengali translations of the ballot would be available — or for that matter that the local Bangladeshi population has grown as much as it has.

According to the latest census, there are enough limited-English speakers of South Asian decent to require language assistance in Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi at certain polling places in Queens. Of those languages, there are more Bengali speakers who speak limited English. While there will be interpreters available for all three languages, officials chose to translate the ballot into just Bengali.

Glenn Magpantay of the Asian American Legal and Education Fund says language assistance to non-English speakers is crucial.

If people “are not proficient enough [in English] to read a ballot, should they be denied their right to vote?” Magpantay said.

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, more than 5,000 Bengali speakers in Queens should have been able to cast their ballot in Bengali. But ballot translations were not completed in time.

The New York City Board of Elections has not explained why and didn’t respond to requests for comment. However, there will be some language assistance at the polls, including interpreters and signage. There will also be sample ballots in Bengali. Just not the real thing.

“It’s nice to have a sign which identifies the poll’s site,” Magpantay said. “But really, the ballot that you mark to vote for the president or senator or member of congress needs to be in a language that the voter actually understands.”

Magpantay isn’t quite sure how the lack of Bengali ballots affected those 5,000 potential voters. Jackson Heights Barber Sonatan Sil is one of them. Sil brushes off a question about voting in his mother tongue. He’s more concerned about deciding who to vote for. Sil says he still hasn’t made up his mind between Obama and Romney.

“I am not Democrat,” he said. “I am not Republican.”

That surprised his Upper East Side customer Zain Ahmed. Ahmed shakes his head at the barber.

“To me that’s absurd. I mean I’m a religious middle-class minority,” Ahmed said. “The opposition is not in favor of people like me.”

The undecided barber shakes his head back at his Obama supporting customer. For Sil the biggest issue this election season is jobs.

“Romney’s policies [are], I think, good policies,” he said.

Ahmed gets upset.

“What are you saying? What are you talking about? Not for people like us," he declared.

The discussion continues on just like that throughout the entire haircut. Sil talks about his dislike of Obamacare. Ahmed continues to disagree.

There’s no consensus in sight — just like discussions in barbershops in Ohio or Florida. In a small basement shop in Jackson Heights democracy certainly is alive and buzzing. But while Ahmed and Sil have the language skills to easily navigate the English ballot this election day, many of their neighbors may not.

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