On a Monday in October 2018, about two weeks before Election Day, I returned to my desk after lunch to find Mr. Khwaja, a naturalized immigrant from Pakistan, waiting for me in my office. We had not met before and I wasn’t expecting any visitors that day, but Mumtaz, the receptionist at the Indo-American Center (IAC), had directed him to wait upstairs while she set out to find me. As I sat down, Mr. Khwaja presented me with a stack of papers: a voter registration card, a pile of correspondences from the Chicago Board of Elections office, and a Get Out the Vote (GOTV) pamphlet from IAC. He handed them to me as if he wasn’t sure exactly what he should do with them. He spoke limited English, and I spoke limited Urdu, but we muddled our way through a choppy conversation. Mr. Khwaja indicated that he needed help making sense of all these documents, most written in English and a few in Hindi, which were filled with logistical information about the upcoming election. We agreed to meet the following Monday, his only day off from his job as a contracted security worker at O’Hare airport, so that I could accompany him to the early voting site.
We met in front of IAC on a mild autumn morning and struck up a casual conversation as we walked the mile to the early voting site. As we approached, I learned that this was not Mr. Khwaja’s first time voting as a US citizen, but also that much about US political processes still eluded him. He asked questions about which candidates and issues would be on the ballot, and who he should vote for. My answers—delivered in elementary Urdu and limited by federal tax regulations that prohibit nonprofit organizations with 501(c)(3) status and their staff from endorsing candidates or political parties—were only minimally helpful. Mr. Khwaja expressed nothing but patience and gratitude, but as we approached the polling site he opined in Urdu, “They should provide more information in Urdu so that we can understand who and what we’re voting for.”
Contours of disenfranchisement
This interaction with Mr. Khwaja was one of a number of similar encounters I had during my time working as the civic engagement coordinator at IAC—a social service agency in West Ridge, a predominantly South Asian immigrant neighborhood on the north side of the city—between February and November 2018. This staff position was one facet of my larger dissertation fieldwork on South Asian participation, civic engagement, and belonging in the United States. I oversaw IAC’s nonpartisan GOTV campaign during the 2018 Illinois gubernatorial and congressional election. This included organizing voter registration drives, phone banks, canvasses, and early voting events targeted at mobilizing naturalized South Asian voters to vote in the primary and general elections. I witnessed several other voters endure the same struggle as they approached the polling booth and spoke to countless voters who expressed some version of Mr. Khwaja’s disorientation and frustration around the lack of accessible information about voting and the electoral process.
Naturalized immigrants are on the receiving end of countless messages about the meaning of their US citizenship, with its particular set of rights and responsibilities. These messages materialize in correspondence from local boards of elections and nonprofit GOTV campaigns. Discourses about voting as a core feature of US democracy and political culture also proliferate more broadly in the media, in secondary civics curricula, higher education, and elsewhere. Rhetorical strategies, such as former President Barack Obama’s signature refrain, “Don’t boo, vote,” are suffused with meaning about voting as a matter of individual choice and collective responsibility.
In this electoral landscape, the issue of voter turnout, particularly among minoritized and marginalized voters, is a puzzle to be explained (see for example, Desilver 2018). In my own research, interlocutors and scholars remain preoccupied with the disjuncture between “high average economic achievement” among Asian and South Asian American communities, and “correspondingly modest levels of political activity” (Wong et al. 2011, 5). However, these narratives all but elide the historical and contemporary realities of voter suppression and disenfranchisement that are as much at the core of US political history as voting itself. Largely partisan battles over voter rights have added new dimensions to conversations about contemporary voter suppression efforts that limit racial and ethnic minority voters, students, and other marginalized people from equitable access to the polls through restrictive voter identification laws, deauthorization of core protections outlined in the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the purging of voter registration rolls, and other strategies to limit access to polling places in precincts with large numbers of minoritized voters (Wang 2012; Anderson 2018). Or, as historian Carol Anderson puts it, the steady decline of African American, Hispanic, and Asian voters in recent years is “puzzling only if you don’t understand how various modes of voter suppression actually work” (2018, 43).
Inaccessibility of US electoral practices
The idea that language access to the electoral system is deeply stratified along various markers of difference may be unsurprising to anthropologists, who are attuned to how the promise of equal access to rights and representation to all citizens lives side by side with pernicious systems of exclusion (for example, Ong 2003). Mr. Khwaja’s resigned desire for information in Urdu is not simply another example of how racialized immigrants who are not proficient in Standard American English experience discrimination in nearly every aspect of life in the United States. Nor does it straightforwardly illustrate how what Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa (2015, 150–51) call “raciolinguistic ideologies that conflate racialized bodies with linguistic deficiency” come to pass in the US electoral sphere, where certain linguistic practices are understood to be more appropriate than others. More specifically, Mr. Khawja’s request for accessible information reveals how even those policies and initiatives designed to expand access often do so through “a perspective that privileges dominant white perspectives on the linguistic and cultural practices of racialized communities” (ibid.) that in turn continues to reproduce the US electoral sphere as “white public space” (Page and Thomas 1994).
Ironically, there are legal protections that specifically address discrimination toward voters with limited English proficiency. In 1975, Congress added an amendment to the VRA (1965) acknowledging that citizens of language minorities have been excluded from participation in the electoral process. The Language Minority Provisions (LMP), detailed in Section 203 of the VRA, require jurisdictions with prescribed numbers of voting-age citizens with limited English proficiency to provide bilingual voting materials including registration forms, ballots, instructions, and other relevant information in minority languages. Covered jurisdictions are determined by the Census Bureau, which uses information collected during decennial census counts to determine which language minority groups are eligible for protection. Cook County, Illinois, which contains Chicago, is one of three election jurisdictions in the United States where any South Asian group is protected by the LMP
As legal scholar James Thomas Tucker notes in his comprehensive survey of the language assistance mandate (2016, xiii), these provisions are “among the least known and most widely misunderstood provisions of the VRA” and have been at the core of contemporary US language debates. During the 1980s and 1990s, proponents of English-only policies attacked the LMP as part of a larger political movement that sought to declare English the official language of the United States (see Woolard 1988 for an anthropological analysis). In the face of threats from anti-bilingual English-only advocates, defenders of the bilingual mandates, like Tucker, have emphasized the LMP’s effectiveness in expanding language minority voters’ access to the political process. But in situating the rights of marginalized groups against backlash from dominant society, this framing risks diverting attention away from the continued lack of access minoritized voters experience even when policies intend to protect them.
The limits of language access
As the election year progressed, I began to see clearly how policies meant to expand voting rights simultaneously raised new questions about what it means to make US electoral processes meaningfully accessible to those who have been historically excluded. In the case of the LMP, these inconsistences are apparent in how language minority groups are conceived. Ironically, the US census does not ask respondents to provide information about their language practices. Consequently, the LMP relies on a formulation that maps language groups onto racial and ethnic categories delineated in the census, an exercise that is already a source of confusion for those whose personal identifications may not map neatly on to the available categories (Escobar and Donnella 2020).
This incommensurability between the racial categories on the census and the lived experiences of race and ethnicity is particularly acute for South Asians in the United States who must select between either “Asian Indian” or “Other Asian” with the option to manually enter race. Notably, these choices and nearly all of the options available under the broader “Asian” category conflate race with ethnicity and national origin (see the Census Bureau’s “Census Questions: Race 2020” for examples). As electoral organizer and activist Tanzila Ahmed detailed in a Twitter thread earlier this year, these categories are not only confusing for South Asians who “are going to look at the Census and not know how to fill [it] out, “but have very real consequences for those who “experience significant injustices—including health disparities, economic disaprities, education disparities” for whom not “fill[ing] out the Census correctly [means being] further marginalized” (@tazzystar, February 4, 2020).
These inequities are explicitly at play in how language access is implemented in Chicago and Cook County, where, according to census data and the prescribed LMP thresholds, the local boards of elections are specifically required to provide bilingual voting materials to Asian Indian voters. In this context, Asian Indian is made into both a monolithic ethnoracial and linguistic category that simultaneously fails to account for the vast linguistic diversity among people who trace their heritage to India and fails to acknowledge how language and cultural practices across South Asia and the diaspora transcend the boundaries of the nation-state. For example, although Hindi and Urdu are mutually intelligible as spoken languages, they are written in scripts that are unintelligible to readers, like Mr. Khwaja, who are literate in one or the other. Shobhana Verma, the South Asian outreach coordinator at the Chicago Board of Elections echoed these concerns as they related to the scope of her position:
[When I started] they said, “Asian Indians are the ones who qualify for language assistance, [and] you need to make this work.” When I came on board and the decision on Hindi was already made because it was based on community feedback…and they agreed on Hindi because they thought it was the most widely understood and spoken language. But when I came on board, my first meetings were “this is all great” but I cannot go out in the community and say, “I’m here to provide language assistance to Asian Indians.” They’ll kick me out the next day. If we want this program to work, it has to be more inclusive.
Shobhana works to implement this inclusivity by supplementing the official Hindi material and recruiting poll workers who speak other South Asian languages including Urdu, Gujarati, Bangla, Marathi, and Punjabi.
Despite efforts to better tailor the language provisions to community realities, US raciolinguistic ideologies also obscure transnational geopolitical formations that inform immigrant South Asian linguistic practices in the United States. This includes the symbolic capital and linguistic value English has held in South Asia since British colonial times (Proctor 2014), and the possibility that meaningful language access may not be as straightforward as translating bureaucratic documents from English to Hindi. Moreover, the broad specifications of the LMP and the reliance on community leaders located at a particular nexus of class, caste, religion, and national origin can serve to reinforce what anthropologist Junaid Rana (2011, 6) describes as “hegemonic India’s domination of South Asia as a regional concept.” This hegemony, which sees India as a “vital democracy” and Pakistan as a “feeder state that produces terrorism” (ibid.), implicitly and explicitly privileges the politico-cultural demands of (Hindu) Indians over other (Muslim) South Asian immigrants.
Purging voter rolls, voter ID laws, and gerrymandering point, rather clearly, to contemporary modes of voter suppression. However subtly, these misrecognitions at the intersections of race, ethnicity, language and geopolitics also bear consequences for minoritized voters. When we arrived at the early voting site, Mr. Khwaja requested that I join him in the polling booth to help translate the ballot and once again asked me to explain the candidates, offices, and ballot measures. For all of the reasons I have discussed, the bilingual ballots did not meet his needs. But when the time came for Mr. Khwaja to cast his vote, we faced another problem: he didn’t know who to vote for. To date, there are no policies that require political candidates to produce their campaign materials in languages other than English. As an employee at a nonprofit organization tasked with mobilizing naturalized immigrants to vote, I found myself in an all too familiar double bind. This undertaking asked me to underscore the importance of political participation to recently naturalized US citizens, but I was also legally prohibited from providing the assistance they most required: information about which candidates or parties might best serve their interests.
In their recent work on raciontologies, Jonathan Rosa and Vanessa Díaz (2019) call on anthropologists to more seriously consider how institutions are involved in reproducing white supremacy. Beyond attending to how institutional racism structures individual actions through policies, rules, and regulations, they argue that we must also pay attention to “particular historical moments, modes of knowledge circulation, and semiotic processes that render institutional structures and patterns perceivable” (ibid., 128). With their work in mind, I reconsider Barack Obama’s refrain, “Don’t boo vote!” or the romanticization of the nonpartisan mandate in nonprofit professional networks—often encapsulated in the maxim, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for as long as you vote”—in a slightly different light. The problem then is not only that minoritized voters’ choices and actions are delimited in the white public space that is the US electoral sphere; it is also that electoral institutions themselves are responsible for reproducing white supremacist raciolinguistic disparities.
Illustrator bio: Sarula Bao is a Chinese American illustrator and graphic novelist based in Brooklyn. She graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 2016 and illustrated a graphic novel, Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution in 2017. She currently works as a visual consultant and a freelance illustrator.