Sitting in her Mount Laurel home, Sharmista Patel does not fully comprehend the conversation unfolding in her living room, but she nods in agreement with her husband as he toggles between English and Gujarati.
The 60-year-old grandmother of two, who came from Samarkha, Gujarat, in India in 1981 with her husband, Sudhir, is still more comfortable communicating in her native tongue, though she took English language classes when the duo first arrived here.
And it’s not just everyday labels and signs that can be daunting. The language barrier has complicated her right to vote.
Since becoming a U.S. citizen 30 years ago, Sharmista Patel has ventured into polling places only when accompanied by her husband. For around 200,000 Asian Americans in New Jersey who speak English “less than very well,” skipping the polling place on election day is common, voting rights groups say.
“I guide her on what to do and who the candidates are. … It’s tougher when there are different choices and different buttons to press,” said Sudhir Patel, 60, an estimator at a Cinnaminson Township metal shop.
But come November, Sharmista won’t have to rely on her husband so much. This year, the state’s Division of Elections began publishing candidate statements and public questions on its website in Gujarati and Korean, in addition to Spanish and English. Gujarati speakers have familial or cultural links to India’s western state of Gujarat.
The Patels have been raptly following Congress’ health-care debate. In 2015, Sharmista Patel underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor, and the couple had to battle insurance companies for coverage.
“Health care here worries me. They don’t want to do anything in Washington,” said Sudhir Patel. “Right now, coverage is very unfair. … It is an important reason to vote.”
No matter what influence translated ballots might have on voters such as them, the Patels say seeing their language on the state’s website “feels special.”
The language accommodations reflect the state’s shifting demographics, particularly in North and Central Jersey. More than 300,000 Indians and 98,000 Koreans call the state home, according to U.S. Census data from 2014. New Jersey has the third highest number of foreign-born residents in the United States, after California and New York, according to the Pew Research Center.
The federal Voting Rights Act requires counties to give language assistance during elections to groups that don’t understand English well. There are eight such counties in New Jersey, three in Pennsylvania.
Last year, the Census Bureau listed 263 counties that must provide ballot translations.
Middlesex County, home to 100,000 Indian Americans, will debut Gujarati translations on paper ballots in November. Bergen County, where nearly 60,000 Koreans live, introduced ballots in Korean in 2010. Three of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties must translate ballots into Spanish — Berks, Lehigh, and Philadelphia.
Beyond voting, the move makes Asian Americans feel more at home in New Jersey, said Jeff Brindle, executive director of the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission, which prepares the candidate statements. The statements are posted on the Board of Elections website for the first time this year after Gov. Christie signed legislation requiring they be posted online instead of mailed to voters.
“It points to a policy long held by New Jersey of assimilation,” he said.
Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, son of Indian immigrants and the only South Asian in the state Legislature, said voting accommodations benefit first generation immigrants most.
“Older generations have kids that go to schools here, they are paying taxes, they are naturalized citizens, but they are still not fully comfortable with the English language because they came here later in life,” said Mukherji, adding that about 110,000 people in New Jersey speak Gujarati — the most of any state.
Rowan University senior Harpreet Manko said ballots in Gujarati will help her aunt Sonu Gandhi, a 65-year-old nurse from Parsippany, who speaks limited English.
“My aunt never could take part in politics before. Now she can have a say over who is in office,” said Manko, 21, president of Rowan Rangeela, a South Asian cultural group and dance team at the university.
Having a voice in Washington also is vital, Manko said, against what she sees as heightened xenophobia.
A 2016 national poll that surveyed 1,200 registered Asian American voters found 20 percent considered “growing hostility toward immigrants” to be an extremely important issue in the 2016 election.
Voting among Asian groups is particularly important in today’s political climate, said Camden County Freeholder Susan Shin Angulo, the first Asian American on the board and daughter of Korean immigrants who moved to Philadelphia in 1974 and opened a dry cleaning business. Her mother still struggles with English.
“Especially now, Asians in New Jersey definitely care about the immigration situation at hand and civil rights issues,” Shin Angulo said.
Seeing languages such as Korean and Gujarati on the state’s website “signals that New Jersey is inclusive,” she said.
For Ashok Dave, a Hindu priest in Cherry Hill, making the voting process easier for immigrants goes beyond the ballot box. At a time of division, it symbolizes unity, he said.
“Though we are coming from different countries, we are all American and we are all one,” said Dave, 61, a former engineering professor who came to America from Mumbai in 1996.
Dave’s wife, Harsha, speaks limited English and typically votes via a mail-in ballot with help from her husband. Dave officiates at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir temple.
Still, voting rights advocates argue there’s work to be done.
Philadelphia and New Jersey offer language assistance only up to the point required by the Civil Rights Act, said Jerry Vattamala, director of the democracy program for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
One must scroll through menu options in English to find translated candidate information on New Jersey’s Board of Elections website, Vattamala said. No counties translate physical ballots unless required.
Philadelphia’s Board of Elections places interpreters at some polling stations, he said, but doesn’t translate ballots into any Asian language. His organization filed a complaint with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations in 2014 that is pending.
At Dave’s temple, not far from the New Jersey Turnpike, there is a secular ritual involving the congregation of 300 mostly Gujarati-speaking members.
Leading up to presidential and gubernatorial elections, the temple holds assemblies where someone interprets as campaign spokespeople describe candidates’ platforms in English. There are voter registration tables set up throughout the year, with help available in deciphering the forms.
The next assembly is on Oct. 29.