Voting Barriers Encountered at a Diverse Poll Site in Queens, NY

ASTORIA, NY – By Suman Ragunathan, FI2W Consultant

In Astoria, Queens, an ethnically diverse immigrant neighborhood just minutes away from Midtown Manhattan, Saeeda Nadeem was on her way to vote for the first time after 15 years in the U.S.Saeeda, a housewife originally from Pakistan, became a citizen two years ago in 2006, and was excited to vote this year.She pointed to the differences between the candidates — a difference she described as “black and white.”

Saeeda’s husband, Mohammad, a hotel concierge –also originally from Pakistan– has been in the U.S. for 21 years and has been voting for twelve years. He said he was casting his vote because he wanted change:”The economy is going down — it’s very hard to live here, and we want hope.”He noted that he and Saeeda, who have three children born in the U.S., had been paying attention to election issues and the debates.Mohammad said he was voting for Barack Obama “because he said he would work on immigration policy.”

Saeeda and Mohammad went to P.S. 234 in Astoria, where they were told that they were at the wrong polling site. They were sent to another polling site across the street, P.S. 17.They later returned to P.S. 234, their first stop, where –though they both live at the same address– Mohammad voted. He then accompanied his wife back to P.S. 17 to vote.

Exit pollsters surveying Asian American voters at P.S. 234 reported helpful poll workers, a variety of interpreters available to assist voters in languages other than English, and very few voters being asked for identification in order to be able to vote.

Across the street, P.S. 17 was a different scene.Lines at times extended beyond the door of the Henry David Thoreau School as residents filed in to vote. Unfortunately, widespread voting barriers accompanied the long lines.

Two volunteer election monitors –first- and second-generation immigrants– reported long lines and overwhelming (and illegal) requests for identification from poll workers aimed at all voters as they entered the polling site.Even this reporter was asked for identification when entering the polling site to gauge the wait time to vote.Asking voters for identification in New York State is illegal, except in very specific cases for some first-time voters.Historically, requests for identification have been used as a pretext to discourage African-Americans, immigrants, and first-time voters from voting.Immigrant rights and good government groups have been fighting for years to enforce this aspect of voting rights law.

The widespread requests for identification, ironically, came from a poll worker who was a Filipino immigrant, stationed at the door to P.S. 17.

By 11:30 am, Kristen Tallbo and Grace Tabib, both 27 years old and Columbia University law students, had been trying for at least an hour to stop the poll site coordinator from asking all voters for identification, to no avail.Both women were volunteering as election monitors through a national election project, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, which has recruited 10,000 lawyers in New York City alone to monitor elections, report problems, and assist voters.Tallbo, a human rights lawyer from Sweden and in the U.S. as an exchange student this year, said she was volunteering because she felt voting was a human rights issue.

Tabib, whose immigrant parents –both U.S. citizens– are from China and Iran, was volunteering “in the spirit of bipartisanship and to make sure everyone’s vote is counted.”She had already voted two weeks ago in Indiana “so my vote will really count” and noted her two younger brothers “were big Barack supporters.”Tabib’s mother had already voted, but would not tell her daughter who she voted for in Indiana; Tabib’s father, originally from Iran, had not voted this year because, according to Tabib, he “didn’t believe in voting.”

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