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In Minnesota, seeking best practices for improving voter access and experience

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

While many Americans view 2017 as an “off” election year, Minneapolis election officials and voters know better. This November, voters will select local municipal leaders and your election officials are already deeply engaged in the work to ensure a secure, accurate and accessible election. We look forward to seeing their progress firsthand and getting a few pointers from them this week while we visit Minneapolis for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) Board of Advisors meeting.

The Help American Vote Act of 2002 established the EAC and its Board of Advisors, a 37-member board that assists the commission with its work to help state and local election leaders improve voting systems and ensure better access to elections. This year’s gathering in Minneapolis takes place against the backdrop of news stories about potential voting irregularities, attempted election system hacking and implications of our nation’s aging election equipment. While discussions and strategy sessions about these critical topics will shape much of our agenda, we will kick off our meeting by visiting with Grace Wachlarowicz, Minneapolis’ assistant city clerk and director of elections and voter services, and later hear from Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon. One of the things we’re hoping they will discuss with us is the city and state’s demonstrated commitment to language access for Limited English Proficiency voters. 

Voting materials in 11 languages

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, more than 100 languages besides English are spoken in Minnesota homes, and Minnesota Public Schools note that 75 percent of classrooms in the city have at least one student who speaks a language other than English. As Minnesota’s diversity continues to grow, so does the demand for election officials to keep pace by providing the resources necessary for all voters to participate. Minneapolis officials currently provide election and voting materials in 11 languages — just five fewer than New York City, where the number of languages available only recently jumped from five to 16. 

Thomas Hicks, Christy McCormick and Matthew Masterson

In addition to the typical translation of voter registration and general election materials, Minneapolis election officials also provide videos and other supplemental materials that demonstrate a commitment to making elections accessible to all eligible voters. Ahead of last year’s election, the city hired the Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s in-house studio DesignWork to improve voting signage by providing required information in a way that is easier to understand and improves voter experience. This effort was so successful that Secretary Simon is implementing it statewide. Minneapolis also seeks out poll workers and precinct workers who can provide assistance in a variety of languages. It’s these kinds of best practices that the EAC seeks to share with state and local election officials across the nation.

The timing for our meeting in Minneapolis could not be better as we are just weeks away from hosting our second annual Language Access for Voters Summit on June 6. This summit, hosted in partnership with Democracy Fund Voice, will examine the importance of language access for all voters and the need for innovation in U.S. elections to keep pace with the changing demographics of the United States. Election officials, voting rights groups and translation experts will be among those on hand to discuss how best to serve Limited English Proficiency voters and what strategies communities are using to provide access to all voters. We look forward to taking the insights and lessons we learn in Minneapolis back to this summit and helping election officials put them into practice ahead of next year’s Federal Election.

Language services to voters and local election leaders

Beyond our annual summit, the EAC is committed to sustained efforts to serve Limited English Proficiency voters and their local election leaders. We offer glossaries of election terminology in six different languages. The glossaries contain 1,843 terms and phrases used in the administration of elections in the United States. To ensure the translations were culturally and linguistically appropriate, terms were translated and reviewed by a multi-dialect team of translators representing the main regions of each language. For example, the Spanish to English Glossary was produced by teams represented from four of the main regions of origin of the Hispanic population living in the U.S: Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Central America. We also provide a voter’s guide to Federal Election is 11 different languages and the National Mail Voter Registration Form in seven languages.

With all of the challenges facing election officials today, it’s important to not lose sight of the day-to-day things that state and local election officials do to improve voter access and experience. The EAC looks forward to our visit to Minneapolis and bringing home some of the city’s best practices to inform our own efforts to help election officials from coast to coast carry out secure, accurate and accessible elections. 

Matthew Masterson is chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Thomas Hicks is vice chairman, and Christy McCormick is a member of the commission.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/23/2017 - 07:46 am.

    I don’t understand

    I am confused here. If I remember correctly, gaining citizenship requires passing an English proficiency test. So who are those people who need help understanding “election and voting materials” in English to the point of translation? They are not written in high end Shakespearean English… On the other hand, why only in 11 languages if people in Minnesota speak more than 100 of them? I mean why are some languages better than others? My guess it is done on the basis of the number of people speaking that particular language but then it comes to discriminating against minorities among minorities…

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 05/23/2017 - 08:35 am.

      I’ll explain

      Even though a voter can speak and read English, it does not mean that they feel particularly fluent. Secretary of State Simon offers the example of his mother, a native German speaker. While she understood most things well (newspaper headlines, for example) when she had something a little more complex or important (like installation instructions or prescription drug instructions) she would call her son to translate for her.

      At the polling are I work at, we have quite a few Russian speakers (no jokes, please). Fortunately, one of my fellow judges was a retired Greek Orthodox priest who speaks Russian. Having instructions explained in their native language was a big help to all involved — you should have seen the smiles when they cast their votes for the 1st time as an American citizen.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/24/2017 - 07:16 am.

        Still not necessary

        I am a native Russian speaker and so, obviously, are my parents. Yes, I translate installation and prescription drugs instructions for them (with the way they are sometimes written, ones needs a college degree to understand them). However, as I mentioned, all voting materials are written in very simple English and my parents understand them with no problems. As an exception, I think elderly people don’t need to pass that English test to become citizens but they should have their kids explain things to them…

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