Voters who looked like her Vietnamese parents and grandparents, but who cast ballots last week in spite of not speaking English, struck Kim Dam as "really brave."
She was one of 120 Asian Pacific American Legal Center volunteers who monitored hundreds of Los Angeles-area precincts with large Asian American populations to ensure they had access to federally-mandated language assistance.
She helped a confused, elderly Vietnamese man at a polling station in Rosemead that was missing a bilingual poll worker. "He was holding his ballot, standing there a little lost," she said.
Dam said she showed him how to punch the ballot, and when he mentioned wanting to vote for Barack Obama, she flipped the pages of a voter guide, showing him California's propositions and countywide measures were also on the ballot.
"It took me long to read through the propositions as an English speaker," she said. "I could only imagine how useful all of the materials and translators were to people."
The legal center, where Dam is employed as a leadership coordinator, found one of five election precincts in Los Angeles lacked bilingual poll workers who should have been present. Monitors also found translated voter guides and sample ballots were missing or poorly displayed.
In the general election four years ago, the legal center found Asian American registered voters and voters countywide were disproportionately immigrant. About 57 percent were registered voters and 53 percent of those who cast ballots were born outside the United States. Comparatively, only 20 percent of all registered voters and 19 percent of all voters were foreign-born.
And, also in 2008, nearly one-third of Asian American voters surveyed by the center indicated they had limited English proficiency, or experienced some difficulty communicating in English.
"The impact on Asian American voters individually can have a long-term impact," said Voting Rights Project Director Eugene Lee. "Our belief is a voter who isn’t able to vote or who has a bad experience, [he] won’t vote again."
This year, his organization fanned out volunteer monitors across the San Gabriel Valley, including to Monterey Park, Alhambra, Rosemead, San Gabriel, Arcadia, Temple City, El Monte, Diamond Bar, Hacienda Heights and Rowland Heights; Cerritos, Artesia, Gardena, Torrance, Carson, Long Beach and Asian neighborhoods near downtown Los Angeles, such as Chinatown and Little Tokyo.
The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/Clerk, which administers elections, did not receive widespread complaints about a lack of bilingual poll workers in the past election, according to Executive Liaison Officer Efrain Escobedo. But he said voters may not know their rights and instead will struggle through the requirements themselves.
"We're now serving 10 languages across L.A. County where it can be a challenge, but it is also something we embraced," he said.
Of 25,000 county workers who worked the polls this year, about one-fifth were bilingual, Escobedo estimated. When a bilingual worker is unable to show up at a polling place, outreach workers are deployed, he said.
Escobedo said working with groups such as Asian Pacific American Legal Center helps the registrar identify problems and work on needed improvements for the next election.
At Damdam's precinct in Rosemead, the bilingual worker scheduled to work that morning didn't show up. A neighboring precinct offered to share a Vietnamese worker, but demand appeared too high.
Had she not been able to help the elderly Vietnamese man? "I don’t think he would have been able to vote, he was very confused," she said.