No Urdu Translators for Voters in Little Pakistan

Brooklyn is home to roughly 45,000 South Asians, with so many Pakistanis living in the Midwood neighborhood that it has taken on a second name: Little Pakistan. Many members of this insular, Urdu-speaking community cannot understand English.

On Election Day, the Chinese and Spanish translators at their polling stations weren’t of much assistance to those Pakistani-Americans looking for help casting their vote.

Voter turnout in the neighborhood was predictably modest, and there was little change this year in the predominantly democrat District 11, which includes Midwood. Congresswoman Yyvette Clarke enjoys strong support in the South Asian community, and was reelected. However, many South Asians were alienated by a recurring absence of translators. Despite these issues, voting advocates and new citizens alike remained cautiously upbeat about Election Day.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), which advocates voting rights, surveyed 3,500 Asian American voters in their exit poll survey after this month’s midterm elections. In a press release following the elections, the organization said they received numerous reports of a lack of Urdu translators at P.S. 217, the primary polling station for Little Pakistan, in Midwood, Brooklyn.

Glenn Magpantay, director of AALDEF’s Democracy Program, condemned the absence of Urdu voting assistance for the community. “We’re disappointed,” he said bluntly.

Many of the South Asian voters residing in Little Pakistan declined to speak to a reporter, citing their inability to understand English.

According to AALDEF’s 2008 exit poll survey, which collected data from more than 16,000 Asian-American voters across the United States, 35 percent considered themselves to have limited English proficiency. Forty-three percent of these respondents “preferred to use some form of language assistance” to vote, the report said.

Ahmad Khan, an elderly Pakistani-American who came to vote at the P.S. 217 polling station, was lost. His son, a non-citizen, could offer no assistance. In the end, Khan approached a Pakistani reporter covering the election from P.S. 217, who helped him at the ballot box.

Only one translator at the polling station spoke any Asian language: a solitary Chinese speaker. By 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, only a handful in the predominantly South Asian and Orthodox Jewish neighborhood had made use of the translator’s Mandarin and Cantonese assistance. (The woman, surnamed Lai, declined to give her full name. A Spanish-speaking translator was also present).

Magpantay expressed frustration with the implementation of Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act. The Act assures certain minorities translators to guide them through casting their ballot, placing special emphasis on minorities who have “suffered a history of exclusion from the political process.” In Kings County, Brooklyn, Hispanic and Chinese languages are the only two covered under the Voting Rights Act.

Only one in five voters surveyed by AALDEF in 2008 identified English as their native language.

Still, Nazeem Alizai, founder of, an organization which encourages Pakistani-Americans to register to vote, remained upbeat about the midterm elections. “I saw 15 or 20 percent more voters in the community [than in the primary elections],” he said. “I kept telling people, ‘Go cast your vote, get your voice heard!’”

For all the linguistic confusion in Little Pakistan, though, young immigrant voters in the neighborhood seemed unperturbed.

College student Fatima Anwar and her younger brother were voting in their first elections. An immigrant from Pakistan, they became U.S. citizens after the presidential elections in 2008. “I’m voting because Obama is the president,” Anwar said in soft but confident English. “I’m here because of democracy.”