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City’s Civic Engagement Commission Creates 11-Language Poll-Site Interpretation Plan for Fall Election

voting gen elect

Voters will have greater access to interpreters at the polls this fall (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The still-new New York City Civic Engagement Commission is set to launch a poll-site language assistance program for the fall general election, expanding on the limited interpretation services that are currently provided by the Board of Elections. 

As required by the Voting Rights Act, the Board of Elections only provides interpreters to assist at poll sites in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Bengali. But New York City residents speak more than 200 languages. About 3.1 million residents, 37% of the population, are immigrants, and about half of them have limited English proficiency, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs annual report.

Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s DemocracyNYC program attempted to fill the gap in language services by placing interpreters at specific polling sites who could provide assistance in Russian, Haitian Creole, Yiddish, and Polish. The Board of Elections, a state entity largely funded by the city, even tried to block the administration in court but was unsuccessful.

The interpretation program acted as a precursor to a broader one that is now being developed by the Civic Engagement Commission, which was created through an amendment to the city Charter approved by voters in 2018. The creation of the commission was put on the ballot by a Charter Revision Commission created by Mayor de Blasio in the first year of his second and final term. The poll-site interpretation program was one of a small number of set responsibilities for the engagement commission, which is made up of 15 members, appointed by various city officials, including a plurality by the mayor.

At a meeting on April 7, held virtually at least in part due to the coronavirus shutdown, the Civic Engagement Commission voted to approve the final methodology for the new program, which will provide interpretation in Russian, Hatian Creole, Arabic, Polish, Urdu, Yiddish, French, Bengali, Korean, Chinese, and Italian. The methodology will be updated in 2022. 

The program will not provide services that overlap with the Board of Elections’ mandated interpretation services under the law. For instance, the commission’s program will not provide Bengali or Korean services since the BOE already provides it. 

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the Commission will determine the number of polling sites that require services in a particular language based on the number of people who are U.S. Citizens of voting age and who are limited English proficient. 

The Civic Engagement Commission decided it will provide interpretation on Election Day as well as the two full weekend days during early voting, beginning with this year’s general election and for every primary, general, and special election thereafter.

That means interpretation this year on October 31 and November 1 during early voting (which will be October 24-November 1), and November 3, Election Day.

The implementation of the program assumes that in-person voting will still take place this fall. If fully put into effect at 100 polling sites, the program could serve as many as 69,940 voters, according to the commission’s estimates. But the uncertainty imposed by the coronavirus means that even members of the Civic Engagement Commission were considering other means of providing interpretation services, particularly if they lack the necessary resources.

“I think it's important to caveat that we've started to discuss with our agency partners what might happen or what could be possible in the event that in-person voting is not possible,” said Dr. Sarah Sayeed, chair and executive director of the CEC, at the April 7 meeting. “We're not sure what that would look like. But we're starting to have that conversation.”

A notable exception from the methodology is that it does not count 16- and 17-year-olds when considering immigrant populations with limited English proficiency, said Murad Awawdeh, a commission member and executive vice president of advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition. “Even the Census Bureau acknowledges the undercount of immigrant communities and immigrant populations,” he said, concerned that those young people will be of voting age before the methodology is updated. “So by using that alone, it further perpetuates the gaps and leaves communities further undercounted and out of this methodology. I think that is a sleight and potentially big oversight in moving a program like this forward.” He noted that 80,000 people become voters each year and more than 100,000 become new Americans annually.

“I don't think we're necessarily leaving them out,” Sayeed responded. “The question is whether we have a good estimate of where the poll site should be. And we think using the citizenship measure combined with LEP gives us a good sense of the poll sites with the highest concentration of eligible voters.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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