Photo by myJon on Flickr.

My friend Lester Feder relayed a story about about voting problems for non-English speakers in Mt. Pleasant:

When I went to vote at Bell Multicultural High School, the polling place for Mt. Pleasant, there was a woman in front of me who did not speak English. Instead of offering her Spanish translation as required by law in a neighborhood with such a large number of Spanish speakers, the poll workers just pointed to the next table after checking her in.

I walked over to pick up my ballot as the poll worker was trying to ask her if she wanted to vote by paper or computer, and I finally just asked her in Spanish which she preferred. The poll worker just pointed to the back of the room where the booths were stationed for filling out ballots, but I had to explain to her that she needed to go up there to fill it out. He did not even point out to her that voting instructions were available in Spanish.

While I was voting, I realized when I got to the ballot question on the attorney general that they had not given her a translation of the question in Spanish, and it was clear that she could not understand it. I went to ask the poll workers if they had a translator, and they responded, “She doesn’t understand the ballot when you explain it to her?” They said if I didn’t want to help her, they could call a translator on the phone, but there was no one on site.

I wasn’t comfortable helping her filling out her ballot—because my Spanish is not perfect and it feels weird going into the voting booth with another voter, but I translated the entire ballot for her as best I could. She told me afterwards that if I hadn’t been there, she would have gone home.

The Justice Department has an explanation of language minority provisions of the Voting Rights Act on its website. ... Section 203 mandates that a state or political subdivision must provide language assistance to voters if more than 5 percent of the voting age citizens are members of a single-language minority group who do not “speak or understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process” and if the rate of those citizens who have not completed the fifth grade is higher than the national rate of voting age citizens who have not completed the fifth grade.

It is not clear to me whether DC is a covered jurisdiction under the Voting Rights Act (since we’re not a state, and not listed in the code that follows) but I’m pretty sure this was against the law. My ANC candidate, China Terrel, was outside the polls. When I told her, she said “That’s unlawful,” and said she’d call Jim Graham’s office to have the help get someone over there. I also called the Election Protection Hotline (866-OUR-VOTE) and reported it to the Justice Department’s Voting Rights Hotline (800-253-3931). But regardless of the federal law, it’s still shocking that a city as committed to diversity as ours supposedly is would leave such a basic barrier to voting in place.


Is this a common problem across the District?  Have you noticed other non-English speakers having difficulty voting today? If so, what kind of assistance did they receive? If you do witness problems, do not hesitant to contact the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE.

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Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own.