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December 16, 2018

EXCLUSIVE: Councilman proposes sending more interpreters to the polls — and allowing them inside

November 26, 2018
Brooklyn City Councilman Mark Treyger. (Jefferson Siegel / New York Daily News)

Councilman Mark Treyger wants the city to provide more interpreters speaking more languages at poll sites on election days — and to actually let them in the door.

Treyger will introduce legislation Wednesday to require the city Voter Assistance Advisory Committee to set up a program to provide interpreters speaking the 10 most-spoken tongues at poll sites where they are needed — a measure he hopes will end the Board of Elections practice of treating the interpreters as electioneers and keeping them 100 feet from the entrance to a voting location.




“What they did to the interpreters this past election was really inhumane and disgusting,” Treyger (D-Brooklyn) told the News. “They forced them to stay 100 feet away from the poll sites in this freezing cold rain because they had this twisted definition of what electioneering is.”

“Helping people find out if they’re in the right place or not is not electioneering,” he added.

Treyger first became worried about language access at the polls years ago when he was called to a poll site in Bensonhurst because a voter who spoke Russian was struggling to communicate with a poll worker about whether he was at the right site.

After a poll worker who spoke Russian tried to help, the poll site’s coordinator rebuked the worker — insisting they could only speak the languages allowed by the Board of Elections: Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Bengali.

Close to 40% of New Yorkers are foreign-born and close to half of Brooklynites speak another language at home, Treyger notes.

Treyger spearheaded a Council effort to create a pilot program for interpreters speaking Russian and Haitian Creole, two languages widely used in Brooklyn, and the mayor’s office recently expanded that program to include the 10 most-spoken languages in the city.

But the Board of Elections has resisted the efforts, Treyger said, having argued there wasn’t enough money for the program, that the state hasn’t mandated it, and that the federal Voting Rights Act requires it to provide interpreters in specific languages only if 5% of a county’s voters speak it.

The board has been treating the interpreters provided by the mayor’s office the same as people handing out campaign literature, requiring them to keep 100 feet away from polling sites.

But Treyger argued his bill should fix that problem — because the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee is a nonpartisan, nonpolitical entity of the Campaign Finance Board.

“There should be no issue here because they are independent, impartial, nonpartisan,” Treyger said, adding there shouldn’t be money concerns either, as the city and not the board would pay for the program.

He said he’s found that a “significant number of immigrant voters” are being turned away or discouraged by the lack of language access at the polls.

“I personally have witnessed many immigrant voters in southern Brooklyn, mainly Russian-speaking voters, telling us, ‘Councilman, no one can tell us if we’re in the right place, no one speaks our language,’ and they just go home,” Treyger said.

The bill would require help for the city’s most-spoken languages — Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Korean, Arabic, Urdu, French and Polish.

“We’re committed to making voting an easy process for New Yorkers. We look forward to reviewing this legislation and working together with our colleagues in government to ensure a more accessible and equitable voting experience for all,” Raul Contreras, a spokesman for the mayor, said.




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