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'A mere translation is never enough': Voters face language obstacles at polls

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"I voted" stickers were distributed at polling stations located in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History during Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

In the 2020 presidential election, nearly 23 million U.S. immigrants were eligible to vote, making up roughly 10 percent of the nation’s eligible voters. Many immigrant voters, though, face obstacles when participating in the political process — including in accessing voting resources in their first language.

According to a study from the Pew Research Center, nearly 40 percent of eligible immigrant voters said they do not speak English very well.

In 1975, to help ensure citizens of language minorities were not excluded from participating in the electoral process, legislators passed a language minority provision in the Voting Rights Act. The provision requires states and political subdivisions to provide registration or voting notices, forms, instructions and assistance in the language of the applicable group, as long as more than 5 percent of voting-age citizens in that area are members of a single-language minority group and do not speak or adequately understand English.

North Carolina is not one of the states required by law to provide non-English language materials, but the N.C. State Board of Elections has taken steps to reach more voters, including a way to translate its website into multiple languages and providing common forms in Spanish. The NCSBE also plans to hire Spanish interpreters and provide a special Spanish language video feed for the upcoming election.

Héctor Vaca, the immigrant justice director for Action NC, said the biggest issue for non-English speakers when voting is the lack of outreach and education about these available resources.

“The mechanisms exist for you to get involved, but the mechanisms to actually educate you and inform you on how to do it are lacking,” he said.

Vaca said the lack of education has affected these individuals, as many people do not understand what is at stake. Some children who are born in the U.S. but have non-English-speaking parents grow up with parents who are uninvolved or uninformed, which can affect the larger community, Vaca said.

Iliana Santillan, the executive director of El Pueblo, said many voters come in with the advantage of understanding the ballot, while some new citizens can find it a difficult process.

When she became a citizen, Santillan said there were layers of challenges that made the process more stressful and intimidating.

“I think most of it is due to the lack of Spanish resources and culturally competent language,” she said. “I feel like some organizations with great intentions translate everything that they do, but a mere translation is never enough.”

El Pueblo seeks to make the electoral process less worrisome for minority-language voters by setting up tents at voting sites to create a more welcoming environment and providing resources like votemosnc.com to help further inform Latino voters.

Jimmy Patel-Nguyen, the communications director at N.C. Asian Americans Together, said the NCSBE often has a very limited budget to adequately educate all voters.

“It doesn't matter if it’s a burden, or if it does cost more money,” Patel-Nguyen said. “Everybody has that right. They should be going above and beyond to make sure that every voter has an equal chance to make it to the polls.”

He said the NCSBE should recognize that the needs of voters are changing, and they must adapt to ensure people can make it to the polls and put people in power that represent the constituents in the state.

Providing language translation for all languages spoken in North Carolina and not just those that meet the minimum threshold is a step the NCSBE should take, Patel-Nguyen said.

“I think that the lack of language access is one of those obstacles that can very easily be remediated, but it's not,” he said. “It's actually leaned into and one that continues to be a problem specifically for the Asian American community, but also other communities that speak other languages outside of English.”

@mkpolicastro

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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