Harris County, Korean Voters Seek Compromise After Dispute Over Translation at Polls

[Image via houstonchronicle]

Leaders of the Korean community in Harris County (Houston), TX are meeting with the county clerk after a dispute about translation at an early voting center this weekend. The Houston Chronicle has more:

Three days after election workers barred translators from asking Korean-American voters if they needed assistance inside a Spring Branch polling place, Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart met with a group of Korean-Americans to find a way to avoid a similar outcome on Election Day.

At the end of the hour-long meeting, which was brokered by Houston Councilwoman Brenda Stardig, the two sides were unable to agree on a solution that would allow volunteer translators to efficiently help Korean speakers cast ballots while following Harris County’s interpretation of the Texas Election Code. Stanart and the Korean-Americans agreed to work together on a fix, and each proposed a set of rules for translators.

“I want them to be successful,” Stanart said of the voters, who are largely elderly naturalized U.S. citizens. “But I want it to be within the law.”

Local Korean-language outlets had encouraged voters to turn out at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center in Spring Branch on Sunday because members of the Korean American Voters League had volunteered to translate. Thousands of Korean-Americans live in the west Houston neighborhood, and comprise a fraction of the more than 30,000 who reside in the region.

Election workers asked the translators to leave the building because they were not permitted inside the 100-foot buffer zone at polling places. Though permitted to approach voters in the parking lot, translator Dona Kim Murphey said they were unable to assist the Korean-American voters already waiting in line.

As a result, the translators were only able to help 40 to 50 voters instead of the hundreds they had hoped. In some cases, they said Korean-American voters cast ballots without help and were unsure if they selected the candidates they intended.

County officials say the translators were in violation of “loitering” near the polling place, which is prohibited by state law:

The Harris County Attorney’s Office said the problem was that the translators were approaching voters instead of being requested. The county considered the group to be loitering, which is prohibited at polling places under the Texas Election Code.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Korean-Americans and their supporters sat around a table in the Korean Community Center in Spring Branch with Stanart, Stardig, and members of their staffs. Stardig invited each side to share ideas on how to improve the voting experience for Korean speakers.

Stanart said groups like the Korean American Voters League should inform the county when they plan to take voters to the polls so election workers can be prepared. He suggested the translators could set up a stand outside the 100-foot buffer zone and solicit voters there.

Some of the Korean-Americans said that would be impractical, since polling places are often crowded and non-English speakers are unsure where to go. They said making translators shuffle in line for an hour or more in some cases, instead of being available on an ad-hoc basis when voters reach the booths, is inefficient.

Others objected to being called loiterers by the county, noting that label is not applied to journalists and exit pollsters, who are free to work inside the 100-foot zone. They said Harris County is unfairly applying the Texas Election Code, which is silent on what a loiterer is and does not explicitly state where translators may or may not stand.

“It’s really not that clear,” said Sang Shin, Houston branch president of the Asian American Bar Association. “There are different opinions to that, legally.”

Stanart said he believes the intentions of the voters league are good, but said he must keep unauthorized people outside of the 100-foot zone because in the past, groups have tried to intimidate voters waiting in line.

“There is nothing we’re doing to single out any group here,” he said. “I can assure you of that.”

This dispute is reminiscent of the case I blogged about recently in St. Paul, MN, where a court found that offering language assistance protected by the federal Voting Rights Act superseded state law. Here, however, Korean is not one of the languages currently required by the VRA in Harris County – meaning that a workable compromise is the only solution. Here’s hoping the two sides can make it work; while there is definitely a benefit to giving voters space in line, there must be a way to alert those needing language assistance that such services are available. With only 5 days to Election Day, that compromise is needed quickly. Stay tuned …

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