On Election Day in Little Pakistan, Brooklyn, PS 217 Elementary School was witnessing a steady stream of voters. They were coming to vote for the 64th, 65th, 71st, 72nd, 73rd, 74th and 106th Election Districts; and they belonged to various ethnic backgrounds, including Pakistanis. Although the polling station had Chinese and Spanish interpreters for facilitating people, without an Urdu interpreter, Ahmed Khan, a Pakistani American was having trouble with language.
Since he was not able to speak or read English, he asked this Urdu-speaking reporter for help. To add to it, Khan could not see much of what was written on the newly introduced ballot paper this year, due to weak eyesight. So, he handed over his ballot to the reporter and asked her to fill it out for him. When asked who would he like to cast his vote for, he replied, “Where’s Obama? Mark my vote for him!” The answer led to an awkward silence between the two parties.
According to Mohsin Zaheer, editor of Sada-e-Pakistan, an Urdu newspaper based in Brooklyn, Khan’s confusion is not unusual. “Basically, you can paint the majority of the Pakistani community in Brooklyn with the level of awareness he has,” he says .
Zaheer, who also writes for a website called ‘Feet in 2 Worlds,’ an initiative by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School which publishes work by reporters who have immigrant roots, argued that the cause behind this general lack of awareness is that people in the Pakistani community do not tend to move out of their own circle very often. As a result, they know the nitty-gritty of the neighborhood, but nothing about issues of the city, state and the nation at large.
“They are usually interested in only making money, as a large number of Pakistanis in Brooklyn belong to low income families. Their concerns revolve around paying the house rent and bills on time,” says Zaheer.
He also holds local politicians responsible for this attitude in the community, pointing out that their outreach towards the ordinary man has not proven effective so far.
Naseem Khan Alizai is the founder of Pakistani Voters, an organization which works for registering Pakistani voters online, so that come election time, they can go out and exercise their right to vote. He says that out of the approximately 200,000 Pakistanis living in New York and New Jersey, only about 1,000 people have registered their vote on his website. When interviewed one day after the election, he said that according to his estimates, only 15 to 20 percent of registered Pakistani American voters had cast their vote the previous day.
Ahmed Khan came to the US 18 years ago, and used to work at a clothing store in Queens. He voted for the first time three years ago. At the polling booth, Khan immediately decided that if Obama was not running in these elections, he would vote Democrat for whoever was running, for whichever post. “I vote for Democrats because it was during the Clinton administration that I got the U.S. citizenship,” he said. That means he registered his vote at least six years after he became an American.
Zaheer echoes the gravity of the situation by saying: “This political apathy among our community is the reason why we haven’t ever been able to create a voter bloc through which we could press politicians for our demands.”
That still does not help situations like Ahmed Khan’s Election Day visit to the polling station. Confusion on election day, especially among immigrant voters with runs high, say voting advocates. Khan was trying to cast his vote from Brooklyn, although his vote is registered in Queens. Deborah E. Valentin, who works for NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development but was volunteering as a Coordinator there, said that she had attempted to explain to him in English quite a few times that he was ineligible to vote, but he could not comprehend what she said.
“I allowed him to fill up a ballot paper because he was still very willing to cast his vote,” said Valentin. “I thought, if this is what’s going to pacify him, let it be.”
American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) is an organization which works with Asian Americans on issues of civic participation and voting rights. According to a survey carried out by the organization after the presidential elections in 2008 in 12 states, including New York, 24 percent of all Urdu speaking people who voted termed themselves as “Limited English Proficient”, while 25 percent of Punjabi speaking voters also fell under the same category. Urdu and Punjabi are both commonly spoken languages in the Midwood community even though interpreters in neither language were at the polls there. Director of AALDEF’s Democarcy Program, Glenn Magpantay was unavailable for comment about similar issues in last week’s elections.
“I think everyone should vote. It is our right,” Khan said enthusiastically during his interview, not knowing that he had been unable to cast a vote himself.