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Need for Bilingual Poll Workers Never Ends

As the special election nears, counties seek volunteers who speak voters' languages. 'It's our biggest issue,' L.A. County's registrar says.

November 01, 2005|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

Kookhi Bae Kim learned the importance of voting the hard way -- by getting a scolding from her mother.

"I came home from school, and it was election day. My mom asked me if I had voted," recalled the 62-year-old La Canada Flintridge resident, who was a college student in Seoul at the time.

When Kim, whose father had fought for Korean independence from Japan, sheepishly admitted she hadn't, her mother delivered some advice she never forgot.

"You need to go and vote. If you don't vote, you don't have the right to criticize," her mother had said.

"She pushed me out of the house and told me: 'You still have 10 or 20 minutes,' " said Kim, who immigrated to the United States 36 years ago. "Since then, I have never missed an election."

During the last three years, she has taken her mother's admonition a step further by volunteering as a bilingual poll worker. Officials say more people like her are needed throughout much of the Southland, even as next Tuesday's election looms.

"It's our biggest issue, always, trying to recruit bilingual poll workers," said Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack, Los Angeles County's top elections official.

The county is required by federal voting law to provide bilingual help in more languages -- six -- than any county in the nation, said David Becker, a Washington, D.C.-based voting rights attorney who tracks election trends. "I'm not aware of any other county-type jurisdiction that has [to offer] more than three or four languages."

This week, several Southern California counties were making last-minute appeals for polling place translators. It has become an election time ritual.

Los Angeles County has recruited nearly all of the 2,200 translators that will be deployed in next Tuesday's election -- about one-fifth of the total poll worker force.

But an additional 200 are being sought as a cushion for last-minute dropouts.

Korean and Vietnamese speakers are especially needed, in addition to those who speak Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog and Japanese.

As of Friday, San Bernardino County still needed 50 Spanish speakers. Orange County was looking for a handful of people fluent in Vietnamese, and Ventura County needs a few more Spanish speakers for the Simi Valley and Moorpark areas. Riverside County has met its quota, said Registrar Barbara Dunmore.

Orange County must offer bilingual assistance in four languages (Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean); Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties are required to translate only one -- Spanish.

Bilingual poll workers help voters with limited English skills get signed in, use voting machines correctly and resolve problems such as getting a spoiled ballot replaced.

A common question they hear: Can I bring someone into the voting booth with me? (Yes, if it's for procedural assistance.)

Such issues can turn into vote-discouraging ordeals for naturalized citizens, said Becker, who spent seven years enforcing election laws for the U.S. Department of Justice.

"There can be a lot of confusion on election day," he said. "When you're voting, you can't afford to get things wrong."

Alhambra resident Lucy Wong, an election-day translator for about five years, said Chinese American voters face a special problem: Chinese are used to having their surnames come first.

"Last name, first name, they're all mixed up on the roster," said Wong, 49, who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese. "We have to ask them, 'What names have you been using?' Then we ask for their address, just to be sure."

Federal law requiring bilingual voting assistance has been on the books since 1975. It applies to any county where more than 5% of voting-age citizens -- or more than 10,000 residents -- speak a single language and identify themselves in the U.S. census as having limited English skills.

Of the dozens of languages spoken in Los Angeles County, six meet those criteria.

Officials say at least two languages spoken by large immigrant populations in Southern California are not covered by the law. Armenian and Russian were not mentioned in 1975 revisions to the 1965 Voting Rights Act that established bilingual requirements.

Congress is taking a new look at the act and could add them, Becker said.

McCormack said her office does not pay to print ballot materials or provide poll translators for other languages, such as Cambodian. But some immigrant community groups provide free linguistic help on an as-needed basis.

"If we get a request for a language we're not required to service, we try to find someone to do it," she said.

Well before election day, McCormack's office determines which precincts need bilingual materials and polling booth assistance by compiling census data and consulting with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the League of Women Voters and other civic groups.

The biggest demand, more than 60%, is for Spanish speakers, whose services are needed throughout the county.

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