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HARRISBURG — When David Galarza showed up at Christ Lutheran Church in the majority-Hispanic city of Reading on Election Day, the lines were long and moving slow, even though it was the middle of the day, when fewer people are typically voting.
Galarza, an Election Protection ambassador with Make the Road Pennsylvania, a Latino advocacy group, was dispatched there from another polling site in the city and quickly learned what the problem was: The poll workers inside, two older white women, were having trouble discerning the names of voters, who were primarily Latino.
The poll workers, Galarza said, weren’t “as culturally competent as they could’ve been or should’ve been.”
Galarza and the other Election Protection volunteers were doing everything they could to keep people in line — a DJ showed up, a woman brought out her guitar, and volunteers handed out tacos, then later, doughnuts and pizza — but still, some people left without voting.
“The line was getting shorter, but it wasn’t because more people were being allowed in,” Galarza said.
The situation at Christ Lutheran Church was isolated — Latino advocacy groups across Pennsylvania said there were only a handful of incidents in which Spanish-speaking voters had trouble with language assistance or access to interpreters on Election Day.
And officials in the three counties with large Spanish-speaking populations that are federally required to provide language assistance — Berks, Lehigh, and Philadelphia — said overall, there were no issues at the polls for Spanish-speaking voters who needed help, thanks in part to Latino and voter advocacy groups.
But volunteers like Galarza said any instance of a Spanish speaker facing a barrier when it comes to voting is inexcusable and shouldn’t be happening in 2020.
“It was a situation that totally could’ve been avoided,” he said. “We have to wonder if this is by design or incompetence.”
A Berks County spokesperson acknowledged the incident at Christ Lutheran Church and said the poll workers were “mismatched with the community” and weren’t intentionally trying to make the process difficult for voters.
The Hispanic and Latino populations in Pennsylvania have steadily grown over the past few decades, making up nearly 8% of the population as of 2019. And with that growth has also come active and passive discrimination that has disenfranchised voters because they were limited English speakers.
In 2003, a federal district court found that Berks County unlawfully barred Puerto Rican voters from bringing people with them into the voting booths to help translate. The Department of Justice said poll workers were hostile toward Hispanic voters to “deter them from voting and make them feel unwelcome at the polls.”
Philadelphia’s elections board settled a lawsuit in 2007 after the U.S. Department of Justice said the city failed to provide sufficient election-related materials and assistance to Spanish-speaking voters.
And this year, the state was slow to provide online mail ballot applications in Spanish, and Latino advocacy groups such as Pennsylvania Voice and Ceiba contemplated suing. The state eventually provided them in August, after the primary had passed.
“There’s no denying that language is not considered a major priority” in Pennsylvania, said Ray Murphy, deputy director of Pennsylvania Voice. “There’s not a firm commitment to serving voters who are speaking Spanish other than what’s directed by law.”
For those localities required to provide election materials and assistance in Spanish, interpreters are staffed at the precincts where county officials determine, based on voter registration records and suggestions from voter and Latino groups, that turnout will be high.
Some boards of election also recruit bilingual poll workers. Those precincts without interpreters have a phone onsite for voters to call a hotline that satisfies the federal language assistance requirement. A spokesperson from the Department of State said the hotline was called 23 times on Election Day.
At one precinct in the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Juniata, where 41.5% of people are Hispanic or Latino, volunteer Gelvina Stevenson spent the day translating for voters, because no interpreters were available. Another section of the federal Voting Rights Act allows voters who need assistance to bring someone with them inside the polls, as long as that person isn’t their employer or a union representative.
Michelle Montalvo, a Philadelphia deputy commissioner who also serves as language access coordinator, said she couldn’t confirm whether an interpreter was at the Juniata precinct, and wasn’t aware of any reports or complaints related to language assistance on Election Day.
She said the commissioner’s office prioritized recruiting bilingual poll workers, and has set its sights on improving access to other languages besides Spanish, including Chinese, which could be added to the list of languages Philadelphia is required to translate for elections after new census data is available next year.
“We’ve been meeting with language advocates since before the pandemic, before the primaries, discussing that possibility and how to accommodate that,” she said.
Stevenson, who was volunteering with the organization LatinoJustice, said the poll workers, who didn’t speak Spanish, were grateful for her help.
But that wasn’t the case in the City of York, where, according to a complaint filed in the Court of Common Pleas on Election Day, poll workers at a precinct with many Latino residents told voters they couldn’t get help from the volunteer interpreters and prevented the volunteers from going into the voting booth with voters.
A spokesperson for York County declined to comment on pending litigation. But Suzanne Smith, the volunteer attorney in the case, said it was heard right before polls closed, and the judge dismissed it because he believed everyone had good intentions and there was no testimony that anyone was prevented from using an interpreter.
While such instances were rare on Election Day this year, the problems Spanish-speaking voters face begins long before then, Pennsylvania Voice’s Murphy said.
Imagine, he said, that you’re a limited English speaker who wants to vote by mail, but the online application isn’t in Spanish. Then you go to the county Board of Elections office to apply, but no one there speaks Spanish. So you try to go to the polls on Election Day, perhaps to a polling place you’ve never been to before, but there’s no interpreter, and you don’t know to ask for the language assistance hotline.
“It becomes difficult for me to measure the problem only on Election Day,” he said. “I imagine there’s a chilling effect that happens long term.”
The solution, Murphy and others said, is to incorporate bilingual speakers who also have the cultural knowledge of counties’ Spanish-speaking populations into all aspects of the election process, and go beyond what is required by law. Having a board of elections staff member in a county with a large Spanish-speaking population who understands that Hispanic voters often use two surnames, for example, would go a long way, Murphy said.
Such solutions will also become a priority as more Latino people are elected to local and state office, he said. And if that happens, “there’s not going to be a choice anymore for governments to figure out how to serve Spanish voters; it’s going to become an imperative,” he said. “Until then, we’re happy to fill the gap.”
Still, the counties’ efforts are an improvement over past elections, said Erika M. Sutherland, a Muhlenberg College associate professor of Spanish who trained all of Lehigh County’s election interpreters. She said it was the first year interpreters received no pushback from judges of elections, and people were overall more welcoming and aware of the interpreters in Lehigh County.
“I think there was a little bit of a sense of solidarity this year, that maybe isn’t always there,” she said. “A lot of people weren’t able to work at the polls so the people who were coming out [to vote] were much more embracing of those that did come out [to work].”
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