Alternative Language Ballots Aren’t Enough: Translation Help at the Polls

Twelve months following the Voting Rights Act of 1975, a section of which requires alternative language accessibility on voting material based on the number of minority-language speakers residing in a county, Spanish made its first appearance in the voting process. And for some of the nation’s largest cities, the addition of Spanish to voter registration forms and ballots was quickly followed by Chinese, Korean, Bangla, Russian, Urdu, Haitian Creole, French, and Arabic – to name a few!  In fact, some cities have tripled the number of languages available on voter registration forms, and the number is still growing.  As recently as April 2018, Sacramento and Fresno Counties added Hmong to the list of alternative language ballots available on Election Day.  Mayors, Secretaries of State, and elections officials all agree the measures to include more languages should expand voting participation.

But the reality is that alternative language ballots aren’t enough for many voters.  Translation support is also necessary.  While some counties place interpreters at precincts that are deemed to be a priority, other precincts are without this support.  As a result, poll workers with good intentions may still struggle to communicate with voters, and the language barrier can cause voters to turn away.  States one community leader in the city of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, “At the end, they end up without voting just because they can’t understand what the people at the polling place are telling them to do.”

What’s Required Under the Law?

By law, voters can be accompanied by someone to assist them with translation at the polls, but only if the assistant isn’t an employer or a union representative.

What if this isn’t possible?

Under the law, the government has to provide translation support for voters with limited English proficiency by counting how many voters speak the same language in a given jurisdiction.

If this number hits a threshold – either 10,000 people or five percent of eligible voters – the government must provide translation and interpretation support under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.

The catch is that the threshold figure is calculated at the county level. In Pennsylvania, for example, only three counties meet the threshold, in each case for Spanish: Berks, Lehigh, and Philadelphia County.  So, while a total of 19 Pennsylvania municipalities meet the threshold, the municipalities are within a county that does not, thereby exempting them from the requirements under Section 203. The “exempt” list includes Lebanon, Lancaster, Hazleton, West Hazleton, Harrisburg, and York. Combined, their zip codes encompass more than 15,000 Spanish-speaking, eligible voters with limited English proficiency.  While many advocacy groups are bringing attention to this oversight, and some are even filing formal complaints in court, to date the legislation remains as it was originally written.

For counties that meet the threshold, what kind of help is required under the law?

Help varies from one county to the next, and even from one polling place to the next within the same county.  “Reasonable and effective” are the two terms by which compliance is measured, and as one can suppose, there are varied interpretations of how “reasonable and effective” is defined.  For example, it may be assumed that alternative language ballots should be available, but when it comes to verbal communication between poll workers and voters, there’s a lack of clarity around what constitutes “reasonable and effective.”

The MVP of “Reasonable and Effective”

One way to give voters access to high quality interpreters is via the Multilingual Virtual Pollworker, affectionately referred to as the “MVP.”  The MVP is essentially an iPad that sits atop a rolling stand with an external speaker – providing a simple way to display and communicate real time information in the voter’s native language.  At the touch of a button, voters can communicate with poll workers, and vice versa, in more than 30 languages including Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Cambodian, Arabic, Navajo, and American Sign Language.  You can take a look at the MVP’s game-winning playbook here:

In addition to improving the voter experience for alternative language and Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing voters, the MVP can improve your polling place’s throughput by eliminating the delays that occur when limited poll worker resources spend extra time with frustrated voters.  It also ensures you’re providing meaningful access to your polling place and adhering to relevant legislation.  To learn more about the MVP, contact Hollister Bundy.


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