Non-English-Speaking Voters a Civil Challenge

By Matthew Bourhis
Boston University News Service

How does an American citizen who is not proficient in English cast their vote on Election Day?  This is an issue that the United States government has tried to resolve for several decades, beginning with an amendment in 1975 to the Voting Rights Act, which required that locales where more than five percent of residents only speaka language other than English,provide bilingual voting materials.

As a result, the city of Boston is now required to provide wards with Hispanic ballots, since the most recent census revealed that the population of Spanish-speaking citizens who are not proficient in English is over five percent.

“The ballots are bilingual,” said Alejandro Matos, a Spanish interpreter working in ward 21 at Allston’s Jackson Mann School.  “Some people have problems reading, so they ask questions and we help them out.”

In addition to providing assistance to Hispanic voters, precincts three through six in Allston offer the services of interpreters for Russian and Chinese language-users.  The Massachusetts Voters’ Bill of Rights states, “You have the right to vote if you cannot read or write or cannot read or write English.”  This notice is posted throughout the auditorium at Jackson Mann School, where the diverse population of Allston’s precincts three, four, five and six came to vote.  Several signs were also posted in Chinese and Russian to alert non-English speakers to the interpreters who are available to help them since the ballots are only bilingual in English and Spanish.

“There are several bilingual poll workers, inspectors, wardens, clerks,” said a poll worker who requested anonymity. “We have such a multi-national, multi-cultural constituency that we have at least three language services.  Obviously the one most in demand is Spanish, followed by Russian and Chinese.”

“I think that at some point you have to balance principle with practicability,” said Boston University Political Science Professor Graham Wilson.“Do I think it’s reasonable to expect election administrations to provide election ballots in every language in the world?  I can’t honestly say I do.”

Foreigners seeking U.S. citizenship are required toachieve proficiency in English, with the exception of people over 65 years old, or residents of over five years who have tried to learn English and cannot. These people may receive a waiver to exempt them from the language requirements, and when voting, they can count on polling-place interpreters as long as there is a high enough demand forthem at their polling place.

“Around us, a lot of people no problem with English,” said Russian interpreter RimmaAlman, “It’s a problem with people after 70 years or more because health is not good and they need help.”

“The government should provide assistance, especially for elderly people,” added the poll worker.

According to her, minority groups that have generally low levels of English proficiency are actually more passionate about voting than native-born citizens.

“They are very dedicated because they come from places that do not have that opportunity,” she said.  “These people come from places where speaking out about the government will get you killed.  There are native-born citizens, who take this precious gift – opportunity — for granted and waste it.  We don’t value it, we underscore it — it’s the most heartbreaking thing.”

In many cases, minority language groups are very engaged in election issues, evidently more so than the large population of native-born citizens who chose to not vote.  So how do they stay informed about election issues if the news is primarily English?

“I know that for the language minorities that I know and have contact with, the smaller ethnicity-focused media is very good at letting them know that there are these services,” said the poll worker.

“Ideally, do I think citizens should be informed by following news, media, which are overwhelmingly in English?” said Professor Wilson.  “My impression is you can follow Spanish language programming, but if that’s not the case, doesn’t that make it harder to be a good citizen?”

One Spanish-speaking voter was even driven to the polling place by a Spanish-language radio station.

“I absolutely feel that they [the language minorities] recognize what a precious gift that is,” said the poll worker.  “People are interested in the process.  It is a new voting system for a lot of people.  But they also need to translate it into their language.”

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