By Jenny Lee
Korean-Americans in Chicago and suburban Cook County can no longer ascribe their low participation in elections to what usually is the biggest challenge for many minority language speakers – reading and speaking in English.
Prior to the 2016 Presidential election, The Chicago Board of Election and The Cook County Clerk decided to supply Korean-language sample ballots and bilingual election judges in 23 precincts heavily concentrated with Korean-Americans including Northbrook, Glenview, Morton Grove, Niles, Skokie and Des Plaines.
The decisions came in an effort to expand access to the electoral process for eligible Korean-Americans – U.S. citizens ages 18 or older – and to facilitate more than 14,000 already registered Korean-Americans with translation services.
“We are finding ways to open the doors to people to vote and make it easier, make it less intimating, less frustrating and find ways to bring people in,” State Rep. Elaine Nekriz (D-Northbrook) said at a recent press conference.
“It’s going to able them to have an impact on the issues that really affect their lives and the lives of their families and their communities.”
Not yet mandated by federal law, the county and city will voluntarily provide Korean translated sample ballots, juxtaposed with the actual ballots, due to the Korean community’s demonstrated need of language assistance, said Noah Praetz, director of elections for Cook County Clerk David Orr.
During the press conference, Praetz explained that Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires officials to provide language assistance to a minority group constituting a population of more than 10,000 eligible voters whose English is limited, and Korean-Americans who spoke English less than “very well” came up just short of the 10,000 threshold in the 2000 U.S. Census.
It is now estimated that more than 40 percent of 37,000 Korean-Americans in Cook County, or about 15,000, have limited English proficiency, according to Andrew Kang, legal director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago (AAJC), a Pan-Asian organization that seeks to empower the Asian-American community.
Kang said the language barrier plays a key part in the low voter turnout among Korean-Americans and Asian-Americans more generally.
Based on the 2012 presidential election exit polls reported by CNN, Asian-American voter turnout (3 percent) lagged behind all the other racial groups – White (72 percent), African-American (13 percent) and Latino (10 percent).
With the Korean translated ballots available, Inhe Choi, of Korean American Resource & Cultural Center (KRCC), a non-profit organization that champions the voting rights of Asian-Americans alongside AAJC and the Korean community of Chicago, is hopeful that more Korean-American voters will turn out at polling precincts.
“Korean-Americans are eager to vote,” Choi said. “About 2000 community members recently signed a petition asking for bilingual ballots.”
The 2016 Illinois primary elections on March 15 will be the first time for Korean-Americans to vote in their native language.
With translated ballots available in Spanish, Chinese and Hindi, Illinois is the fourth state in the country, after California, New York and Washington, to provide Korean translated ballots.
As recently as 2007, Korean-Americans were allowed to vote in Korean elections for the first time by a law accepting absentee ballots.