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Translated ballots, designed to engage new American voters, fell flat in Vermont primary

Published: 8/27/2020 10:17:42 PM
Modified: 8/27/2020 10:17:34 PM

Back in January, Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos launched a new program that aimed to make voting more accessible to new Americans. Starting with the March presidential primary, ballots would be translated into six languages at the Burlington and Winooski polling locations. Both cities have substantial numbers of people whose first language is not English.

But the ballots were barely used in the Aug. 11 primary election. Translated ballots were requested only twice in Winooski, both in Arabic, said Town Clerk Carol Barrett. In Burlington, no one at all requested a translated ballot, City Clerk Amy Bovee said.

That lack of interest has raised concerns among some new American community members, who say more needs to be done to make voting truly accessible to their populations. Some also say the low turnout could be the result of a disconnect — new Americans simply don’t see the candidates talking about issues that matter to them.

Condos has been an evangelist for voting accessibility, promoting same-day voter registration on Election Day, and automatic voter registration for anyone renewing a driver’s license. He took his efforts to a national scale, and was president of the National Association of Secretaries of State in 2018-19.

His latest effort was to expand voting accessibility to people who don’t speak English as a first language.

“The Constitution guarantees the right to vote for all U.S. citizens. It doesn’t say English-speaking or anything like that, for all U.S. citizens,” Condos said in an interview with VtDigger.

“But simply having that right doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges or barriers that many of those voters might face to exercise that right.”

The state has no obligation to provide translated ballots. But, as a second-generation American — Condos said his grandparents emigrated from Greece — this initiative was personal for him. He said it was simply “the right thing to do.”

He said conversations in his office got the idea rolling in 2018, and as this year began, more than 150 people attended educational events about the translated ballots that his office organized in both Winooski and Burlington. Condos said over 150 people attended.

Condos said his office relied mainly on those events and its partnership with new American community volunteers to inform non-English-speaking voters that the ballots were available in French, Arabic, Burmese, Swahili, Nepali and Somali. Videos on the Secretary of State’s website, translated into those six languages, instruct Vermonters about how they can vote.

But despite those efforts, Raghu Acharya, a longtime Winooski advocate for new Americans, said he didn’t know the translated ballots existed. Acharya immigrated to Winooski from Bhutan in 2011 and said he’s been doing advocacy work in the city for nine years.

“People are not making good use of it because of a lack of education,” Acharya said of the ballot system. “I was surprised when you brought them up. I have no words because I don’t know.”

Barrett, the Winooski city clerk, said there had been no widespread promotion of the translated ballots before the Aug. 11 primary.

Bovee, the Burlington city clerk, said signs advertising the ballots were posted on the polling place doors and information about the ballots was on the city clerk’s website.

‘Do something differently’

Acharya said the ballots should be advertised more systematically before elections. He also said the state shouldn’t rely on volunteers to spread the word in the communities. Winooski and Burlington should hire people to do that work, he said.

“I have told them they have to do something differently,” Acharya said. “When you have expectations for any community of people living in the city, if they are making a real difference and you want to count them, you better get somebody who can be responsible to answer their questions.”

Two volunteers with whom the Secretary of State’s Office worked to spread information about the ballots said they didn’t have the bandwidth to be interviewed by VtDigger. One of them, Mohamed Jafar, did say in an email that he appreciates the work Condos has done on this issue, but “translated ballots are especially complicated during a primary.”

Acharya said candidates aren’t doing enough to listen to New American voters and learn what issues they care about.

“If you ask a single candidate about immigrant communities,” Acharya said, “they know nothing.”

Aden Haji, a Burlington school board member and New American community advocate, said the translated ballot initiative is wonderful, and he helped with the translated how-to-vote videos. But he said more work is needed to promote the fact that the ballots are available, and he thinks Burlington and Winooski officials should organize Zoom meetings to spread information to New American families.

Haji also said New American families are under a lot of stress because of the pandemic, and that could pose barriers to voting.

Encouraging New Americans to vote may become even more difficult as the state pushes mail-in voting for the November election in an effort to minimize coronavirus exposure. Condos said there’s no way to know which languages are spoken in which households, and if English-language ballots are mailed to people who aren’t fluent in English, they may end up in the trash.

In an email, Condos said he wished his office could do more to connect with New American voters. He said his office doesn’t have the “staff or the resources at this time to conduct a focused outreach campaign.” He said he has the smallest elections team in the country, which is why his office has relied on volunteers.

After the November election, he said, his office plans to regroup with the steering committee that has helped guide the translated ballot work.

“Do we wish that we could do more? Absolutely,” Condos wrote. “We are grateful for the support and guidance our partners have provided in this work, and look forward to discussions of how we can grow upon what we have done so far.”

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