Translation is a basic civil right at the polls

During the Democratic caucuses in Nevada earlier this year, a controversy erupted when a polling place failed to provide a Spanish translator, a member of the audience volunteered to conduct translation, and she was shouted down by people who claimed that she was biased because of her political affiliations. Ultimately, the caucus runners decided to suggest that voters translate for each other. Subsequently, the internet exploded with accusations that one side or the other on the story was lying, a problem compounded by a shaky, functionally inaudible video that made it very difficult to understand what had happened.

The situation highlighted a very basic and important issue: Translation at the polling place is a fundamental civil right that absolutely must not be abridged. All voters deserve access to election materials provided in a language and format they understand, because if they don’t have this access, they can’t really vote fairly. Unscrupulous poll workers and other people with political agendas can manipulate them, and in some cases could actively sway their vote by telling them to mark the wrong box or providing them with incorrect information. All voters must be able to fill out ballots independently and in private, and if they have questions about their ballots, they need to have those questions answered in their native language.

When I lived in San Francisco, voting materials came in a massive packet. The election guide and vote by mail ballot were translated into at least seven languages, and literature also indicated that people could receive materials in additional languages if necessary. The large number of languages reflected the diversity of the city — and the provision of nonpartisan election materials for all interested parties reflected respect for basic civil rights. (Of note: Partisan material like candidate statements and pro/con arguments for ballots must be translated at the expense of the party making the statement.)

As an English speaking, writing, and reading voter, I’ve never encountered an inaccessible ballot in the United States, and election materials have always been accessible to me. If I’ve had questions, back in the day when I used to go to a physical polling place, I could directly ask a poll worker. The same isn’t true for many other people in the United States — more than once, I saw Spanish-speaking people struggling at the polls, because not all locations had Spanish speakers on staff. For those speaking other languages — Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Arabic, Hindi, ASL…it can be even more of a struggle.

Polling places must provide translated voting materials as well as translation to assist people with questions and concerns. If a poll worker doesn’t speak a given language, the polling place needs to be connected to a hotline that provides on-demand translation, something state offices sometimes offer (I’ve had to conduct administrative business at agencies that have a sheet of paper at the front desk where people can point at the language they speak, for example, so that personnel can call for a translator, and some private companies like Kaiser also do this). In the case of ASL and other signed languages, this means that the polling place needs to be able to place video and TTY calls (there are actually a growing number of great video calling services that can be used on tablets, making them efficient and inexpensive to use, and tablets equipped with blind and low-vision friendly software are also in use in some states to improve accessibility).

The fact that some voters cannot access election materials should be a national shame. It interferes with the conduct of free and open elections — imagine entering into an environment where no one speaks your language and a paper with completely incomprehensible directions is thrust in your face. You’re expected to cast a vote without even understanding what’s going on.

Some political campaigns are very on top of this, providing education and outreach to non-English speaking communities to help them vote on election day. That includes explaining ballots, helping people identify the names of their candidates, and discussing ballot initiatives and what yes or no votes mean. These voters at least stand a chance when it comes to voting independently, but not necessarily. If they can’t remember what they were taught, or are presented with election materials that differ from those provided as examples by the campaign, they might get confused, left at sea with no one to help them.

Voting is often described as a fundamental right in the United States, a country where the ability to speak at the polls is treasured. Historically, of course, voting rights were quite limited, and restrictions on voting are still in place — minors cannot vote, for example, and felon disenfranchisement laws prevent prisoners for voting as well as restricting those on parole. Certain disabled people are also barred from voting if they’re under conservatorship, on the grounds that they aren’t able to make free and independent decisions because they’re ‘mentally incapable.’

Anything that restricts voting rights is a problem. All people in the US deserve the right to vote and they need to be able to access polling places in all senses of the word. A huge majority of polling places have one or more accessibility problems that make it difficult or impossible for disabled people to vote in their precincts. Many have limited to no translation resources available to assist people who don’t understand English voting materials. This is wrong, and state governments need to be taking more aggressive action to defend voting rights.

Image: The Polling Place, Roberta Romero, Flickr