Translators help Korean American voters in Harris County find their electoral voice

Population growth has pushed Harris County across federal thresholds that require offering ballots and other election assistance in four languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. But the federal Voting Rights Act’s complex formulas to determine mandatory language assistance leave behind tens of thousands of residents who speak languages like Tagalog, Hindi, Arabic and Korean. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

With a population greater than that of 26 states, speaking more than 145 languages, Harris County can be a difficult place to make oneself heard. That’s especially true at the ballot box.

Houston resident Hyunja Norman has watched her fellow Koreans struggle to participate in a city where politics play out primarily in English and Spanish. For naturalized Asian American citizens like herself, she says, there are also cultural hurdles. They were taught to “follow the crowd” and avoid drawing attention to themselves.

“But I think I realized to live in America, we cannot live the way we lived in our old country,” said Norman, 51, who was born in South Korea and made her way to Houston in 2007 after wrapping up a stint as an overseas volunteer. “We have to make our voice heard. We need to make noise.”

So for years, Norman has organized what’s known locally as Korean American Early Voting Day, a get-out-the-vote effort focused on older Texans who aren’t proficient in English. She produces voter guides painstakingly translated into Korean and holds news conferences to explain what’s on the ballot each time around. On a designated early voting day, volunteers gather outside Trini Mendenhall Community Center in northwest Houston to offer translation services to prospective voters.

But Norman and other community leaders long faced a problem with the 100-foot buffer zone set up around Texas polling places to keep partisan electioneering away from the ballot boxes. Translators couldn’t cross the line unless a voter spotted them on the way in to cast a ballot and asked them to come inside.

Following a dust-up last year during which translators crossed the protected zone to approach voters waiting in line, Korean American civic groups and the Harris County Clerk’s Office began searching for a way to make translation services more easily available. The solution was found in an approach communities across the country have begun using to bridge language barriers and help fill gaps in federal voting rights law: putting volunteer translators on the county payroll. That way, if a voter doesn’t bring a translator to the ballot box, there’s someone inside the polling place who can help.

Next year’s elections are expected to drive large turnout, and the model could serve as an electoral blueprint for expanding language access in one of the country's most diverse counties.

“We wanted to come to something that would help the Korean group but others as well. Something that was scalable to any part of the county,” said Roxanne Werner, the county clerk’s director of community relations. “There’s no reason we can’t also hire poll workers who are bilingual in other languages or familiar with American Sign Language.”

Population growth has pushed Harris County across federal thresholds that require offering ballots and other election assistance in four languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese.

Harris is under the most language requirements in the state and is just one of a handful of Texas counties that must provide assistance in languages other than Spanish to voters unable to speak or understand English well enough to participate in elections. But the federal Voting Rights Act’s complex formulas to determine mandatory language assistance — a combination of languages spoken, citizen population and literacy rates — leave behind tens of thousands of residents who speak languages like Tagalog, Hindi, Arabic and Korean.

Nearly 9,500 Harris County residents speak Korean at home, and nearly half are not considered fluent English speakers, according to 2015 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

A separate provision of the Voting Rights Act allows voters with limited English proficiency to bring someone who can help them cast a ballot. But advocates for the Asian American community have labored to convince counties across the country to voluntarily provide assistance for voters whose numbers haven’t reached federal thresholds for mandatory assistance.

Recruiting bilingual poll workers is “standard practice for election officials who want to serve all voters,” said Jonathan Stein, a staff attorney and voting rights program manager with Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s Asian Law Caucus.

“Recruiting bilingual poll workers to serve in one or two polling places is really simple, straightforward stuff,” Stein said. “I mean that is step one in providing language assistance to communities in need.”

Some counties and states, including California, have adopted lower thresholds to trigger mandatory language assistance, targeting specific precincts and neighborhoods where data shows voters may need assistance. Places like Cook County, Illinois; Philadelphia County; and Los Angeles County have blown past the Voting Rights Act’s requirements and voluntarily offer fully translated ballots, voter registration applications or other election materials in various languages beyond those required by federal law.

Although it's difficult to pinpoint how many voters are helped by language assistance programs, research that more generally measures program benefits has found that they lead to greater voter participation and more elected representatives from the communities.

Pointing to those types of local efforts helped Korean American advocates and community leaders make their case with the Harris County clerk’s office during a series of meetings this year. And the longevity and growing popularity of Korean American Early Voting Day proved there was a “huge need” that Norman and her cadre of volunteers were trying to address, said Jerry Vattamala, director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s democracy program, who took part in the discussions.

Their lobbying resulted in a commitment by Harris County officials to go beyond federal requirements and hire multiple Korean-speaking poll workers. Beginning with the 2019 constitutional amendment and mayoral election, those poll workers would be assigned to a voting site in the Spring Branch area — home to what’s known as Houston’s largest Koreatown — and be on hand for the surge of elderly voters expected to participate in Norman’s get-out-the-vote effort.

The message the advocates brought to the county clerk’s office, which had inherited the conflict from a previous administration, was that the Voting Rights Act offered a floor and not a ceiling for language assistance. “There’s nothing stopping you from doing more,” Vattamala said.

And there were lessons to pull from Harris County’s history.

Two years before the county was required by federal standards to provide election assistance in Chinese, advocates in 2009 lobbied for three key election materials to be translated and disseminated among the county’s Chinese American community — an effort that paved the way for a smoother rollout of mandated Chinese language assistance years later, according to those involved in the process.

Left unresolved in the back and forth with the Korean American community was advocates’ desire to work within the state’s 100-foot protected zone. County officials said it wouldn’t be practical to have representatives and volunteer translators from multiple communities inside the lobbies of polling places.

But the groups and the county came to an agreement on the poll worker front, and Norman offered names of two of her volunteer translators who ended up working inside the polling place for the 12-day early voting period in the most recent election. Since then, the county has also made small changes to its poll worker application form in hopes of encouraging people who speak various languages to apply to work the election.

“They know the neighborhoods where those might be needed,” Werner said. “If there’s other groups that are interested in that, we’d be happy to have them.”

It’s virtually impossible to measure the breadth of language assistance that the two Korean American poll workers stationed at Trini Mendenhall Community Center provided while on the job in the November election.

The county doesn’t track assistance based on language, though Werner said she checked on the polling site during early voting and found that the team “was happy to have someone who spoke Korean.” And Norman’s volunteer translators still showed up on Korean American Early Voting Day, milling around just past the 100-foot markers, ready to help.

Sunhi Case, one of the translators turned poll workers, said she was busy helping elderly Korean American voters during her morning shifts, particularly during the weekend that overlapped with Norman’s get-out-the-vote effort and on a weekday when a senior center that caters to Korean Americans provided transportation for at least 30 voters. The steady flow of assistance included walking voters through the check-in process and translating the ballot for them.

The effort helped Hyesook Song, a 72-year-old Korean American, vote for the first time last month.

Speaking through an interpreter, Song laughed when explaining that she wouldn’t have been able to cast her first ballot had a Korean poll worker not been in the room to explain how to use the voting machine and to make sure she properly selected the candidates she wanted to support.

“If there is nobody there, she wouldn’t even think about it,” her interpreter said. “She said she is very thankful as a U.S. citizen to participate in the political process by casting a ballot. She felt very good because her voice was heard this time.”

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