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How Minnesota has tried to make voting more accessible to new Americans

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Dursitu Agamso joined the city of Minneapolis as an election specialist to work with East African immigrants.

In recent months, one common theme has wended its way through various reports about the presidential election: that Republican candidate Donald Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric could potentially drive record numbers of new Americans to the polls on Election Day.

And it’s true that in Minnesota and nationwide, activists have spent months organizing citizens from those communities to register to vote in hopes of defeating Trump, who has proposed the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border; the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants; and the banning of Muslim refugees from entering the United States.  

If they do show up at the polls, those voters in Minnesota can expect a bit of a helping hand, as state and local election officials have been working since the beginning of this year to attract more bilingual election judges to work at polling places, and specifically to work with voters from East Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, which make up some of the largest immigrant communities in the state.  

“Bilingual election judges are important because even the most fluent English speakers among our new Americans may need and sometimes prefer technical or voting instructions in their native language,” notes Ryan Furlong, the communications director for Secretary of State Steve Simon. “Bilingual election judges help increase accessibility at the polls.”

In Minneapolis, the city has hired more than 100 employees to help with the primary and general elections, said Anissa Hollingshead, a communications and outreach manager with the city government. Those positions include community specialists, absentee ballot assistants and voting equipment technicians.

Dursitu Agamso, who has been employed with the city of Minneapolis as an election specialist since June, is one of many who have served at the city’s polling stations, greeting voters and assisting them fill out ballots.

While many new American voters are well-educated and well-informed about the electoral process, there are also many who will be voting for the first time — or who are struggling with reading and speaking English. “Since they don’t speak English and can’t read what’s on the ballot, I read for them,” said Agamso. “When I read, they recognize the name. They heard the names in the media and from campaign workers. They say, ‘Where is his name or her name?’ I tell them, ‘It’s here.’ Then they say, ‘Can you circle that name for me?’”

The city has also worked on recruiting up to 2,500 more people to staff polling stations across the city on Election Day as election judges — especially those who are fluent in a second language, including Spanish, Somali, Hmong, Oromo, Lao and Vietnamese.

Anissa Hollingshead
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Anissa Hollingshead, a communications and outreach manager with the city of Minneapolis, says bilingual election judges have become more in demand in recent election seasons.

But it’s not only Minneapolis where election judges are in demand. Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon has been active in recent months in recruiting and providing resources for voters all over the state whose English isn’t their first language. “There is a huge demand for bilingual election judges … and Minnesota must meet that demand,” Simon stated in a statement. “I encourage Minnesotans to consider applying and taking part in this civic opportunity.”

In addition to hiring bilingual elections judges, earlier this year the secretary of state’s office announced “the largest collection of foreign language voter resources ever” would be made available to voters. Those resources include voter information in over a dozen foreign languages, including: Amharic, Chinese, Hmong, Khmer, Lao, Oromo, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese and Karen.  

While the ballots are only printed in English, this is hardly the first time that Minnesota has provided election materials in foreign languages. The first began to provide voting information in languages other than English in 1896, when the state made voting instructions available in German, Finnish, Polish, Bohemian, French and Swedish.  

“As the son of an immigrant, I know how important it is to provide our new Americans with voter resources in their native language,” Simon noted in the statement. “We should do everything we can to provide eligible voters with the information they need to vote, and this is an important step in that direction.”

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Cary Johnson on 11/04/2016 - 12:35 pm.

    Voting – Immigrants

    Do the laws of the United States and Minnesota mean anything anymore?

    My wife taught English as a Second Language for 30 years here in Pelican Rapids, MN. She also taught Citizenship classes to the many immigrants in our community and we are proud of the many students and parents who completed those classes and got their citizenship.

    Here are 4 requirements to be able to vote according to the law.

    1. An immigrants must be able to read and write and speak English (without assistance) to vote.

    2. They must have to pass a citizenship test

    3. They have to be here in the US and Minnesota 5 years before eligible to vote

    4. If married to a US citizen, 3 years

    Is this correct? The article did no suggest anything about these rules. Are the rules different in Mpls and St.Paul vs the rules in the rural area?

    Note: No one was allowed to walk up to a voting booth with a voter because they were confused about the voting process or because they did not know who to vote for. The voter should have been educated on becoming a citizen first and learning how to vote before the election.

    • Submitted by B. Dalager on 11/04/2016 - 02:06 pm.


      What “laws” are you talking about? Do you also think that voters have to pay a poll tax?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/04/2016 - 04:21 pm.

      Very Confusing

      If you are a US citizen, and are at least 18 on Election Day, you may register to vote. Those are the only requirements under Minnesota law–naturalized citizens have no separate requirements.

      A person applying for naturalization must pass an English language test. The test seems fairly simple: read one of three sentences aloud, write one of three sentences correctly, and have your spoken ability judged adequate by a CIS officer.

      A person may pass this test but still feel more comfortable communicating in his/her native language.

  2. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 11/04/2016 - 02:58 pm.

    Bilingual Voting

    I am a naturalized American citizen. In order to become a US citizen, you need to demonstrate that you know English, as well as pass a citizenship test.

    If you don’t understand our voting process or can’t read the ballot, how did you become a citizen?

    That’s not even getting into the question of which languages we would provide assistance with.

    What an absurd waste of money. It’s this kind of stuff that fuels an anti-immigrant attitude in this country. If people came here, and learned the language and didn’t expect special treatment, you would see all of the hostility that is becoming pervasive in the country.

  3. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 11/07/2016 - 03:48 pm.

    Language Cost

    I work as an election judge in a first tier suburb with a lot of immigrants, mostly Russian, Somalian, and Hispanic. For our language items we have cards in various languages that people can reference. Total cost: maybe ten bucks. And the only reason they’re that high is because they’re laminated.

    I’m sure Minneapolis’ effort costs more as they’re hiring a lot of people, but even then you’re not talking big money as the people are probably paid minimum wage and work part time. Perhaps a few thousand dollars?

    That sounds like a worthwhile expenditure if we get more citizens to vote.

  4. Submitted by Richard Hodges on 11/08/2016 - 06:50 am.

    Did the folks above miss the fact that over a 100 years ago voting instructions where provided in German, Finnish, Polish, Bohemian, French and Swedish? So what’s the difference if today they are available in Amharic, Chinese, Hmong, Khmer, Lao, Oromo, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese and Karen?

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