Philly leans on volunteers for election translating, especially Asian languages

 A sign for an interpreter hotline should be present at every polling location. (Kyrie Greenberg/for NewsWorks)

A sign for an interpreter hotline should be present at every polling location. (Kyrie Greenberg/for NewsWorks)

Everyone talks politics, but some voters need more help than others at the polls.


Language has posed a problem in the past at some Philadelphia polling places, but those who work with immigrant communities are hoping for a smoother Election Day — with the help of more than 300 interpreters.

Most voters who need language assistance are elderly, said Maria Sotomayor, outreach coordinator for the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizen Coalition.

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“A lot of people come from countries where going to vote is a completely different process than in America,” she said. “In our countries, you might just have to fill out a paper ballot. But, here, we have to use a computer. And if there’s someone at the polls who speaks their language they are going to feel more comfortable.”

Will Gonzalez, executive director of the Latino umbrella group Ceiba and president of the Pennsylvania Hispanic Bar Association, is hoping for an improvement on what he saw during the May primaries.

“They did a pretty decent job, the city commissioners,” he said. “We saw, however, that as we moved out of the areas where Latinos were concentrated, the poll workers were not as well versed with the requirement of equal access. That, in the absence of an interpreter, they can use a city-provided telephone to call an interpreter on the spot.”

Almost all of Philadelphia’s 322 interpreters speak Spanish. Ten speak Asian languages, four speak Russian, and two speak Italian. The city prioritizes Spanish interpreters because of the federal Voters Right Act, which requires districts to accommodate languages spoken by more than 5 percent of voters.

Most non-Spanish speaking voters can get help through the hotline.

Proposing simple solutions

Asian Americans United filed a complaint with the city for not having enough interpreters in Asian communities during the primary.

Nancy Nguyen, president of Boat People SOS Delaware Valley, says the solution doesn’t have to be expensive.

“Something as simple as making sure all the language signs are up,” she said. “When we have been at the polls in the past we haven’t seen them up, and they’re saying that every single polling site has them.”

Voters who don’t read English can point to their language on the sign or call the hotline for 173 languages, but only if Philly’s 1,700 judges of elections post them.

Nguyen also suggested voters bring a friend or family member to the polls; almost anyone, other than your boss or union leader, can be deputized as an interpreter as long as the voter and elections judge both sign off. The city also holds trainings for interpreters to be certified and paid on Election Day.

Helping out in Mandarin and Cantonese

High school Junior Elaine Wong will spend Election Day volunteering as a Cantonese and Mandarin interpreter at polls in South Philly. “The first time my dad asked me to help people I was very nervous. I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “And then he said, ‘It will be OK, very easy.’ Because I know Chinese, I can translate for them, so, [it was] not bad.”

Wong has only been in the U.S. a few years and isn’t a citizen yet, but still likes to be part of the process.

“I like to help people. After you help people you feel in yourself a different way. You feel you can change the world,” she said

Polls are open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. To find your polling place, visit the the Pennsylvania  State Department’s polling place search site. 

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