Wanted: Bilingual Poll Workers

With the November 2000 election fresh in the nation’s mind and with the nation’s poll workers getting older, activist groups are looking for younger, fresher and more technologically savvy volunteers, especially as counties turn in their punch-card machines for new high-tech voting gadgets.

County and election officials have launched a massive campaign to recruit new poll workers, many of whom are new to the voting process.

And while efforts are under way to recruit nearly 500,000 new workers by 2004, some experts say the push to add bilingual workers and ballots for foreign-born voters will only add to the scandals that have plagued the nation’s election system.

The National Association of Counties, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the League of Women Voters, among others, have launched the "Expand Democracy in America" campaign in an effort to reach out to minority groups and expand the number of volunteer workers.

The groups expect to have 100,000 new workers on board in time for the November election, and are hoping to join forces with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and the National Council of La Raza to get those groups to recruit members to work at the polls.

"That would add, and in some way, alleviate the problem and meet some of the needs of having bilingual judges and poll workers," said NACo spokesman Tom Goodman. "It would definitely help to have more bilingual poll workers -- there’s no question."

But while bilingual poll workers and ballots are required for certain regions under the Voting Rights Act, some opponents say those same provisions should be thrown out.

"There are very, very few people who cannot speak English well enough to be able to comprehend a ballot … names do not appear differently in other languages," said Linda Chavez, head of the Center for Equal Opportunity and one-time Bush Cabinet nominee.

"I think it also sends a very bad message to people who become naturalized citizens -- and that is, it’s not important for people to learn English," she said.

Chavez said the voting scandals like the one in Palm Beach County, where many older and minority voters said they couldn't understand the now-defamed butterfly ballot and mistakenly cast the wrong vote, will only be compounded with instructions in foreign languages.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 dictates that voting jurisdictions must provide language assistance to voters if a certain number of them do not "speak or understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process."

On Friday, the Census Bureau and Justice Department released a list of new voting precincts that will use the bilingual ballots and poll workers. Los Angeles, for example, added Korean to the list of languages -- which currently includes Spanish, Tagalog, Japanese and Vietnamese -- that it must accommodate at the polls. Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, must now provide assistance for Chinese and Hispanic voters.

In all bilingual-voting jurisdictions, at least 5 percent of the voters are not fluent in English and the rate of those voters who have not completed the fifth grade is higher than the national average.

About 1.4 million volunteers worked the polls during the 2000 elections. The typical poll worker’s day lasts from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. with few breaks. On average, they make $51 to $100 a day.

Poll workers issue and explain ballots and voting equipment to new voters, assist handicapped voters and troubleshoot equipment. They also close polling stations, tabulate results and repack supplies.

The National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium found that although there have been more efforts made to hire bilingual poll workers, the quality of translated materials and conduct of local poll workers toward non-English proficient voters was far from cordial.

"We definitely believe Florida was just a microcosm of our entire country" as to these problems at the polls, said Eng Vincent, legal director for NAPALC. "Poll workers need to be more diverse and represent more of the community."