[Image courtesy of upenn]
The New York City Board of Elections is once again in the news – and once again it is the subject of controversy after poll workers were told NOT to assist voters in languages other than English unless certain conditions were met. The Wall Street Journal has more:
A rule that has prevented multilingual New York City poll workers from helping voters in languages other than English has come under fire from elected officials, who say it kept eligible voters from casting ballots in Tuesday’s primary.
The city Board of Elections instructed poll workers in August that they couldn’t help non-English speakers in a foreign language unless there was a bipartisan team of translators at the voting place, according to poll workers and officials.
Election officials said the rule helps the board comply with state law and has been enforced for as long as anyone can remember.
The city requires official translators in Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Bengali in several immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, but poll workers who aren’t authorized translators can’t help non-English speakers, officials said.
The rule stems from traditional procedures that seek to guarantee that any election assistance is provided without partisanship – which in many states means bipartisan teams serving as a check on one another. The Board reiterated that policy yesterday, though some poll workers were surprised:
Michael Ryan, the board’s executive director, said state law requires assistance from poll workers to be bipartisan to ensure fairness.
“You don’t want anyone, let alone poll workers for the City of New York, telling somebody how to vote and influencing the vote,” Mr. Ryan said.
“We are balancing the need to assist the voter against the overarching need to ensure the integrity of the election process,” he said.
Mr. Ryan said the policy was long-standing and no special emphasis was placed on it in August training sessions.
Some poll workers with years of experience said the August training sessions were the first time they had ever heard of the language rules. The procedure booklet for poll workers didn’t mention that assistance could be provided in other languages, stating only: “”No Poll Worker may provide assistance in a language that is not covered by the Board of Elections.”
Mr. Ryan said the manual “probably should have said: ‘no individual worker.” He said the line was added in the 2014 manual, as it was missing from earlier versions, “as a clarification” of an existing policy.
The problem, of course, is that the policy ends up interfering with poll workers’ (hopefully!) ingrained desire to help voters, plus it limits language assistance only to those languages mandated – which are driven by population figures, not individual voters’ needs:
Paul S. Lipton, a long-time poll site coordinator in Brooklyn, said he used to have his multilingual poll workers help voters as needed in whatever common language they had. Voters are often confused by the ballot, he said, and need help in their own language.
“It’s disenfranchising the people, and I don’t like it,” Mr. Lipton said. “The Board of Elections is making it harder for them to vote.”
Parts of Brooklyn have many Russian immigrants.
Across the city, 70,718 Russian speakers speak English “very well” and 115,369 speak English less than “very well,” according to the American Community Survey data 2007-2011, conducted by the Census Bureau.
Some poll workers said voters left the balloting sites without voting when told someone couldn’t help them in Russian.
When voters at election district 25 in Midwood addressed Lina Paskvitovskaya in Russian and asked for assistance, the poll worker replied in English rather than in her fluent Russian, telling them she couldn’t help them in Russian.
“Some people turned around and left,” she said.
Worst of all, it sets up conflicts between poll workers – not an ideal state of affairs:
Late Tuesday, Ms. Paskvitovskaya decided to start helping voters in Russian, walking 90-year-old Roza Sariashvili through the process of filling out the ballot. Ms. Sariashvili said she had learned English to obtain U.S. citizen ship but has forgotten much of it over time.
Asked what she would do if she couldn’t get ballot assistance in Russian, Ms. Sariashvili said: “I would not vote.”
A neighboring poll worker scolded Ms. Paskvitovskaya. “You know you’ll get into a lot of trouble if you keep speaking Russian like that.”
The board’s coordinator at the site, Gail Robinson, said she and her workers were merely following the agency’s rules.
“I follow policy,” Ms. Robinson said. “It’s not my policy, it’s their policy.”
I understand and endorse the desire to keep partisanship out of poll work – and I know that offering assistance in a language other poll workers don’t speak can serve as a cover for inappropriate assistance. But when voters need that assistance, New York City (or ANYWHERE with significant numbers of non-English speakers) needs to know its community well enough to make sure that voters get what they need. If the policy requires bipartisan translators, get them; otherwise, the drive to keep partisanship out of the polls may drive legitimate voters away, too.