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.”
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
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.
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