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Lack of Polling Places In Chinatown And Koreatown Decried By Asian American Civil Rights Groups

A man in a mask and baseball cap casts his ballot at a yellow voting booth, one in a row of several.
Voters cast their ballots at the Vote center inside Staples Center in 2020.
(Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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There will be hundreds of places in Los Angeles County to vote in-person for the upcoming June 7 primary election — more than 630, in fact.

At present, not one of those vote centers is located within Chinatown, and only one is in Koreatown, two of L.A.’s densest neighborhoods with large numbers of immigrants whom community leaders say benefit from having a nearby polling place where they can receive in-language assistance from poll workers.

For Chinatown residents, the closest vote center will be at the Metro offices by Union Station. That’s about a mile away from Castelar Elementary School, which was used as a neighborhood vote center in the 2020 elections but is not on the list this year.

The distance is a concern because many Chinatown seniors do not have cars or the physical mobility to travel the hilly path to get to a vote center outside their neighborhood, said Nancy Yap, who leads the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment or CAUSE.

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Yap said some residents may also feel more comfortable staying in Chinatown given the continuing trend of anti-Asian attacks such as Wednesday’s shooting attack on three Korean women at a Dallas hair salon.

“I imagine our seniors walking around a mile, two miles to get to Union Station, I just can’t do it,” Yap said. “I’ve just been thinking about that: How do we keep our communities safe?”

In Koreatown, the city's most densely-populated neighborhood, there is just one vote center, at Trinity Central Lutheran Church, located in the neighborhood's southwestern corner near the intersection of Wilton Place and Olympic Boulevard.

A colorful dragon and the words Castelar Elementary adorn a mural outside the school in Chinatown.
Castelar Elementary School in Chinatown has served as a polling place in the past.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

Amid a barrage of criticism about disenfranchising voters in a primary that is weeks away, the Los Angeles County Registrar’s Office noted in an emailed statement that it is “in compliance with the distance and geographic distribution requirements set in the California Elections Code.”

However, the office said it is responding to concerns by community members in Chinatown and Koreatown and “continuing to explore the availability and compatibility of sites” and working with community groups to host mobile vote centers or “flex” centers which would be open less than the minimum four consecutive days required of full-fledged vote centers.

The last few days has seen a flurry of communications between the Registrar’s office and Asian American organizations, with groups such as CAUSE and the Korean American Coalition raising concerns over the dearth of vote centers in the two neighborhoods.

Daisy Ma of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance said Friday that county staff was planning to visit the civil right group’s lodge in Chinatown later in the day. The group has volunteered its lodge for past elections and Ma was optimistic that it could be used again so the neighborhood would have at least one polling place.

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“At least one,” Ma said. “And, hopefully get more.”

Vote centers were first introduced in Los Angeles County in 2020 as part of a voting system overhaul that saw thousands of polling stations consolidated into hundreds of vote centers.

Election officials billed the change as a win for voters because they were no longer tied to their local precinct and could cast their ballot at any vote center across Los Angeles County as early as 10 days before Election Day. This year, some vote centers start opening their doors on May 28.

In 2020, Chinatown and Koreatown each had several vote centers that locals could choose from.

Asked why no vote center has been set up in either neighborhood this year, the Registrar’s office responded by e-mail that suitable locations must meet certain requirements on accessibility, availability, parking, internet connectivity and be a minimum 2,200 square feet.

Take the Alpine Recreation Center, a popular community space in Chinatown. It was used as a vote center in 2020 but the Registrar’s office said that “it was not scheduled in subsequent elections due to the size limitation” and scheduling conflicts.

A photo of a breezeway of a building with Chinese architectural touches including red pillars. There is the silhouette of several people standing below the breezeway.
The Alpine Recreation Center in Chinatown has been used as a vote center in the past.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

In the same e-mail, the office appears to be willing to relax its requirements by seeking out potential “flex” centers.

Yap, the head of CAUSE, said she appreciated the Registrar’s office efforts to find polling places for the upcoming primary but hoped there would be long-term planning so there won’t be this kind of scramble for the general election.

“We’re in this stage where we're finding some stop-gaps, but that should not change the fact that we can book (places) now for November,” Yap said.

The Registrar’s office, which declined an interview, noted in its email that instead of in-person voting, people can mail their ballot early or visit a Ballot Drop Box location.

But Chinatown resident Maylee Ramirez said the neighborhood should have a polling station of its own. A Cambodian American, she said there are many immigrants in the neighborhood who speak Southeast Asian languages as well as different dialects of Chinese and could use the help of poll volunteers who can communicate with them.

As someone who doesn’t have her own car, she said it was convenient to vote at Castelar Elementary School, where her daughter is a student. Ramirez also found the participatory process moving.

“I want to see how people are interacting with voting,” Ramirez said. “I went in there one time to register to vote and it was an amazing experience.”

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.