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Translation Help At The Polls: What's Required And How It Works

Lindsay Lazarski


There are requirements at polling places, but help doesn't reach everyone who needs it.

Elections have been hectic for Cesar Liriano for most of the nine years he's lived in the city of Lebanon. Presidential elections are craziest, but he's busy during the lower-turnout local and gubernatorials, too.

"Normally, I get up at 5 o'clock every day, doesn't matter elections or not," Liriano says. "I go down as soon to the polls as soon as they open, I go and vote with my wife, and then I get prepared to be running from one poll to the other."

Liriano, who's from the Dominican Republic, has run for City Council before, as a Democrat, but it's more his role as a community leader that puts him in demand as a translator.

He says he's often summoned to a polling place and arrives to find well-intentioned election workers simply unable to communicate with voters. He says he hasn't always made it before the language barrier discouraged voters away.

"At the end, they end up without voting just because they can't understand what the people at the polling place are telling them to do," he says.

Liriano, 40, has been trying to raise awareness about the shortage of language support at the polls since last spring, at least.


Credit Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY
Cesar Liriano attends a poll watchers training with the Lebanon County Democrats at Hoss's Restaurant.

The city of Lebanon is known for its sizeable Latino population, so the county puts interpreters at some precincts and all voting machines offer Spanish versions of ballots.

But it's not a requirement under federal law.

The way the Voting Rights Act is written it can leave gaps between community need for translation and interpretation at the polls and what's provided, advocates say.

In places like Lebanon, the shortfall is due mainly to how legal requirements are triggered.

How it works

Voters can bring along someone to assist them, so long as that person isn't their employer or union representative.

But what if that's not feasible?

Basically, the law determines whether the government has to provide support for voters with limited English proficiency by counting how many speak the same language in a given jurisdiction.

If it hits 10,000 people or 5 percent of eligible voters, translation and interpretation requirements are triggered under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.

But the population thresholds are calculated at the county level. In Pennsylvania, three counties meet it, in each case for Spanish: Berks, Lehigh and Philadelphia.

"I think that the law works for the majority and I guess that's appropriate, in a lot of ways, or people feel like it's appropriate," says Hazel Diaz, volunteer coordinator for the Lebanon County Democratic Committee.

By the numbers

In the city of Lebanon, 12 percent of eligible voters have limited English proficiency and speak Spanish. Countywide, it's 3 percent — comfortably under the 5 percent federal threshold.

Nineteen Pennsylvania municipalities meet the threshold, but are within a county that does not. The list includes Lebanon, Lancaster, Hazleton, West Hazleton, Harrisburg and York. Combined, they're home to more than 15,000 Spanish-speaking eligible voters with limited English proficiency.

"We've had people run for city council and win by 11 votes," Diaz says. "So every vote really does count."

Sufficient data to do a similar analysis for other languages wasn't available.

But there are more than 140,000 eligible voters with limited English proficiency statewide speaking a language other than Spanish, the vast majority residing in Philadelphia and surrounding counties.

In Philadelphia, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund' has been trying to get more language support at polls, including through a complaint under the city's Fair Practice ordinance.

Support spectrum

Exactly what kind of help is required?

It's varies among counties, or even polling places within the same county.

"Reasonable and effective," says Will Gonzalez, who heads Philadelphia-based Latino coalition Ceiba. "Those are the two subjective terms by which you judge compliance [with the Voting Rights Act]. ... [It comes down to] balancing the need of limited English proficient citizens in a particular precinct relative to the resources available."

There's general agreement that ballots and voting machines must offer translations, for example.

But in practice, particularly when it comes to verbal communication between poll workers and voters, there's ambiguity as to what constitutes "reasonable steps" taken to provide "effective" support to overcome language barriers.

None of the three counties under federal mandate supplies bilingual election workers at every polling place. Berks and Lehigh counties' election officials we spoke with say workers at sites without an interpreter can call the main office for help interpreting — but only in Spanish. They say other language barriers have never come up.

Philadelphia poll workers have access to interpreters in languages other than Spanish via Language Line translation service.

But Vattamala says the service is "something that's there on paper but in practice it never gets used."

Language Line representatives didn't respond to requests for comment. The company website describes the service as on-demand, 24/7/365, and available in 240 languages, although advocates for refugees and other LEP populations typically make appointments to ensure they get through to someone.

When translators are accessible by phone, they're highly preferable to mobile apps such as Google Translate, because mechanical translation of text to try to facilitate verbal conversation, Gonzalez says, "leads to misunderstandings" and "isn't effective at all."

But even when telephonic interpretation works optimally, some say it still leaves much to be desired.

"Some of my advocate friends say ... the impersonality and the difficulty of exchanging a handset or exchanging a mobile telephone back and forth makes telephonic interpretation not effective and not reasonable," Gonzalez says.  

Places where translation is not required, but is available

York, Dauphin, Luzerne, Lancaster and Lebanon counties are not under the federal mandate to provide translation services, but include at least one of the 19 towns that "would be" if population thresholds were calculated at the municipal level.

Each of these counties provides Spanish translations of printed ballots, electronic versions on voting machines, or both. They also provide interpretation over the phone or through bilingual poll workers, assigned to select precincts based on feedback from election judges.

Dauphin, for example, ensures bilingual support at two precincts in the city of Harrisburg, and all 164 sites countywide have hard-copy provisional ballots in English and Spanish, according to Dauphin County Director of Elections & Voter Registration Jerry Feaser.

The translation that doesn't add to the printing expense, Feaser says.

Voting machines offer a Spanish language option throughout Lebanon County. It cost $4,000 or so – about 2 percent of the county's total election budget – to program machines to offer each of the 56 precinct's different ballots in Spanish, according to voter registration director Michael Anderson.

Lebanon County will staff 15 polling places in the city of Lebanon with 22 interpreters. About half of those are students at the city's public high school, Anderson says.

Lehigh County has a similar partnership with Muhlenberg College, according to Timothy Benyo, chief the county's clerk of registration and elections.

Vatamalla says using students is a "wonderful idea that would be one of the best ways to eliminate almost all of the problems that we've encountered and observed in the last several elections." But he says students aren't used very frequently.

Anderson says he'll also call on some of the Lebanon Democratic Committee's bilingual volunteers, should the need arise, on Election Day.

Anderson says he's not concerned about using party-affiliated translators. Anyone helping voters communicate with poll workers would be within the 10 feet distance at which rules against politicking kick in, the same guidelines which apply to county-trained, county-paid poll workers, he says.

Vattamala says having people who are associated with a political party at the polls leads to problems.

"We've seen this in numerous elections," Vatamalla. "They oftentimes will be persuaded or through language barriers, the person that is assisting that is partisan will oftentimes choose candidates that the voter themselves did not want to choose."

Editor's note: Statistics on voter residency, English proficiency and native language are based on a Keystone Crossroads analysis of 2014 Census data, the most recent available.

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads

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