HOUSTON – While accompanying her mother to the polls on the first day of early voting in Houston, the Latina woman was told by a poll worker that her presence was illegal. “She went in with her mom to try and vote. Obviously her mom wanted her to help with translation,” Carlos Duarte said. The pair was approached by a poll worker who said to the mother, “‘You know what? She cannot be here. She cannot assist you.’”
The poll worker was wrong. Federal law allows a voter to have a translator of choice present-- like a friend or a family member – even inside the voting booth. In the incident Duarte recounted, the young woman stood her ground. She knew the law. She is a staffer for Mi Familia Vota, a non-partisan organization that promotes voting as but one element of civic participation, particularly among the Latino community, and for which Duarte serves as Texas state director.
“The voter absolutely has every right to bring a translator of their choice who can assist them with their ballot. The translator will have to sign an oath [at the polling location] saying he [or she] is not going to improperly influence their vote,” explained Maureen Haver, state director, Common Cause.
Whether or not the poll worker’s challenge was the result of poor training and misinformation, or a deliberate act of voter suppression, it will be difficult to calculate the number of voters who need language assistance who may be similarly confronted and forfeit their right to vote for lack of knowledge.
While polling stations may provide translators, Haver said having a trusted person to provide assistance can be especially useful for voters who may be only partially literate in their own language. “Time and time again, we continue to hear that poll workers are saying that only they can provide assistance to these voters. That is incorrect information,” Haver emphasized.
Speaking at a symposium hosted by New America Media and the Advancement Project, a civil rights and racial justice organization, Haver said the assistance in the booth not only applies to the Chinese, Spanish, and Vietnamese-speaking communities of Houston, “but also here in Alief, which is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the entire city, we have Indonesian speakers, we have Malaysian speakers, we have Punjabi. We have all these other languages.” Ballots in Harris County, which includes Houston, are available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and now Chinese as well.
The Voting Rights Act has several criteria that mandate multi-lingual ballots based on Census data. In 2002, Harris County was ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice to print Vietnamese ballots based on the 2000 Census which documented at least 10,000 Vietnamese residents old enough to vote but who were not English proficient. From the 2010 Census, the Harris County Clerk’s office made the same numerical determination about the Chinese community.
Judd Huang, a reporter for KCHN 1320 AM, Texas Chinese Radio, said members of his community were pleased that “for the first time they can cast a ballot in Chinese.” He also commended Harris County for “trying to get more Chinese speaking people working at the polls” but agreed with Haver and Duarte that misinformation from poll workers can result in serious consequences. “We have a problem when people are trying to bring their own translator to the polls and they get turned away. We keep telling them it’s their right. They can have their family member or someone they designate to go with them. It’s the law.”
If the first day of early voting turnout October 22, was an indicator, enthusiasm among Harris County voters is running high, said Juan Carlos Iberra, staff attorney for the Voting Rights Project, the Advancement Project. He said that Monday was a “record breaking day; 47,000 in-person votes were cast, 20 percent more than the previous record for the first day of early.” Iberra said those numbers were encouraging in the face of legislative efforts to suppress the vote, like the Texas photo voter ID law the courts found illegal. “Here the burden was on the state to prove the law would not discriminate and the state failed to prove the law was not going to be discriminatory against our communities,” Iberra said. “New citizens and new voters are the people these laws really affect.”
For example, Christina Sanders, state director, Texas League of Young Voters, said the photo ID law would have potentially disenfranchised “so many young people, particularly at colleges and universities.” She said some only had an ID issued by the state where they were from and not the newly required photo ID the law would have mandated.
Sanders said young adults are often dismissed as being uninterested in the democratic process by those unfamiliar with evolving youth culture. “We do see more young people enthusiastic, despite popular belief, about this process and despite the fact they follow Lil Wayne and may not follow the president on Twitter. They’re very informed about what’s going on.”
Regardless of the ruling against the photo ID law and the apparent level of interest in voting among Houston’s populace, Iberra was quick to note that other challenges still persist.
Jannette Diep, program coordinator, Boat People SOS, which provides service to the Vietnamese community, said assisting voters in finding the correct voting precinct is one constant, but confirming whether someone actually has been registered to vote continues to be a vexing issue. She said immigrants often fill out voter registration forms at naturalization ceremonies when they take their oath of citizenship but some are later unable to verify they are eligible voters. Haver said simple spelling errors may account for a percentage those cases.
Common Cause encourages citizens to verify their registration status through date of birth and address rather than using a name-only inquiries, Haver said, because an initially misspelled entry will not yield a match. “It happens more commonly than people would think,” she said, particularly with complicated names or those in foreign languages, including those spoken by Houston’s burgeoning Nigerian community.
Even more important than immediate bureaucratic impediments, Haver said those concerned with the expansion of the voting franchise should prepare for the looming battle over the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Amendment. She explained that while much attention has been given to True the Vote’s initiative to challenge voters’ citizenship and registration status at the polls, the Houston-based organization’s legislative agenda is to impose English-only ballots in future. In order to legally accomplishment that goal, the Voting Rights Act will have to be overturned.