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City Enters Litigation Against Board of Elections to Make Voting Easier for Limited English Proficient New Yorkers

February 25, 2019

NEW YORK––The City responded today to the New York City Board of Elections’ attempt to bar interpreters from being inside buildings where poll sites are located during Tuesday’s Special Election. If the courts fail to resolve the litigation in the City’s favor prior to Tuesday’s election, the City will still provide interpretation services 101 feet outside of the polling locations.

Read the City's Response.

“Voting should be easy no matter what language you speak,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “It’s obvious the Board of Elections does not share this value. We’re going to continue fighting until our interpreters are inside polling locations for New Yorkers who need them most.”

Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives J. Phillip Thompson said, “The Board of Elections continues to act as a barrier to democracy for voters who rely on interpretation services to have their voices heard. We’ll do everything we can to ensure that people who need these services get them.”

“Voting is a right, not a privilege. By blocking interpretation services for voters with limited English proficiency, the Board of Elections is sending a message that they simply don’t want to make voting easier for registered voters. It’s disappointing that in the most diverse and progressive city in the nation, the entity charged with making sure that New Yorkers can exercise their constitutional right has chosen to be on the wrong side of history,” said Chief Democracy Officer, Rini Fonseca-Sabune.

“Voting is a hard-won right and the United States proudly recognizes that language should not be a barrier to the franchise,” said Bitta Mostofi, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. “But realizing that promise requires greater efforts by all of us, and the de Blasio Administration continues to work towards greater access to interpretation services in many languages, including Russian, Haitian Creole, and Yiddish for the upcoming Special Election. We’re proud to work with the Mayor’s Office of Operations to make voting more accessible to New Yorkers.”

“I am a proud voting rights advocate and Life Member of the NAACP; and on the right side of history in several voting rights battles such as the US Supreme Court’s Flateau v. Anderson; Andrews v. Koch; Ashe v. NYC Board of Elections; et.al. With new voting mandates such as Early Voting, Language Assistance et.al., BOE should not resist but rather embrace; not be reactionary, but rather be proactive, creative and visionary, in our efforts to improve NYC voting and democracy. And, BOE itself, is in major need of structural and managerial reforms,” said Board of Elections Commissioner John Flateau, Ph.D.

Currently, the Board of Elections provides interpretation services in certain poll sites in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and Bangla, as required by the Voting Rights Act. The Administration will be filling a gap across communities by providing interpretation services in the top four additional commonly spoken languages among voters with limited English proficiency at poll sites with the greatest concentrations of these individuals. Languages provided include Russian, Haitian Creole, Yiddish and Polish.

For this election, the City sought to have these interpreters placed inside of buildings where poll sites are located and had been working with the Board of Elections for months to accommodate this. However, just four days before the Special Election, the BOE asked a judge to bar these interpreters from being inside buildings where poll sites are located.

The City believes that providing these services inside buildings where poll sites are located encourages limited English proficient New Yorkers to vote and is consistent with the intent of the Voting Rights Act.

Regardless of the resolution in this case, the City is prepared to provide interpretation services to help voters with limited English proficiency participate in our democracy. These services will be provided at the 48 polling locations with the highest need, which are throughout Brooklyn and Queens, on Tuesday, February 26, 2019.

The Administration hired interpreters through Langalo Translations, a City-certified M/WBE language services vendor, and conducted comprehensive trainings for poll site interpreters.

Mirroring last November’s election, the City utilized a nonpartisan approach in identifying poll sites where these services will be provided, which is intended solely to serve those sites with the highest need for interpretation services. Specifically, the City first analyzed detailed census data. This data helped identify the top 15 languages spoken by limited English proficient New Yorkers: Russian, Haitian Creole, Italian, Polish, Arabic, Yiddish, Greek, Albanian, Tagalog, Urdu and French, in addition to the languages covered by the Voting Rights Act.

The City further analyzed this census data to identify the percentage of people within these populations who are 18 years or older and eligible to vote to determine where the highest need for interpretation services at poll sites exist. Given the timing of the Special Election and the limited number of interpreters, the City selected the top 48 poll sites with the highest need for this upcoming election.

These services will be available entirely at a voter’s voluntary discretion. Staff have been provided with a training that mirrors the BOE’s own training, including non-electioneering protocols, providing interpretation services, maintaining voter privacy, the voting process and New York City’s Election Day operations. Staff will identify themselves by wearing pins with “interpreter” listed in English and the additional language they speak. If the courts have not issued a decision in the City’s favor before the polls open on Tuesday, these interpreters will still be available and stationed 101 feet outside of polling locations, barring any bad weather. City interpreters will be available from 6:00 AM to 9:00 PM during the Special Election.

The de Blasio Administration will be providing these services until the full implementation of interpretation services of the Civic Engagement Commission, which will begin in 2020.

The full list of poll sites where the City is providing interpretation services can be found here.

Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez said, “We should be making it easier, not harder, for New Yorkers to exercise their fundamental right to vote. I strongly oppose this latest effort to remove interpreters from polling stations and support the City's effort to ensure their access."

“Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy. As public officials, our job is to make it easier, not harder for people to vote,” said Congressman Adriano Espaillat. "We must protect our democratic process and that includes ensuring that all residents have the opportunity to vote and participate in our election process regardless of the language they speak. All voices matter and we will fight to ensure that all persons have the ability to participate in a fair election process.”

State Senator Zellnor Myrie, Chair of the Senate Committee on Elections, said, "A legitimate democracy is one that invites all New Yorkers to make their voices heard, no matter their native tongue. Shutting out interpreters from polling stations is a direct attack on our immigrants, our communities of color, and our democracy itself. My colleagues and I stand united today to protect the rights of all New Yorkers to make their voices heard."

“I am very disappointed in the actions of the New York City Board of Elections,” said Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte. “Instead of choosing inclusion, the Board has continued to allow language barriers to hinder democracy. The truth is that voting can feel like an impossible feat for people whose first language is not currently represented by the Board of Elections. In a participatory democracy, access to the right to vote should be a priority. On Tuesday and for all other elections, all citizens should be able to vote with full comprehension of how to carry out that right. Accordingly, I will be introducing legislation to ensure translations services and assistance for the most widely used languages in the state.”

“I am disappointed that the New York City Board of Elections is barring new city funded interpreters from entering poll sites for the upcoming special election,” said Assembly Member David I. Weprin. “I hope that this issue is resolved in favor of the voters so that all New Yorkers have the opportunity to exercise the right to vote.”

“By suing the city to keep translators 100 feet away from polling sites this Tuesday, the New York City Board of Elections is continuing its long and disturbing pattern of disenfranchising limited English proficiency New Yorkers,” said Assembly Member Steven Cymbrowitz. “This is shameful. As someone who has been at the forefront of legislative efforts that would make it easier for Russian-speaking New Yorkers to vote, I call upon the BOE to stop creating unfair barriers that exclude immigrants from the democratic process. Translators must be allowed indoors so that limited English voters can actually make use of their services.”

“While powerful forces are fighting to build barriers to the ballot box around the country, New York’s recent electoral reforms have been a shining light. The recent actions by the New York City Board of Elections are now threatening our progress by using taxpayer money to shut out our City’s diverse electorate. Democracy relies on fair and open elections, no matter what language you speak. We must do everything in our power to uphold those principles,” said New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

"It is hard to imagine a bigger waste of time and taxpayer money than the New York City Board of Elections suing New York City to stop them from assisting voters on election day,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY. "The county political bosses who appoint the Elections Commissioners need to tell their appointees to get a clue and start helping voters," said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said, “The New York City Board of Elections cannot fail the voters yet again. They need to let interpreters into poll sites for the public advocate special election, just as they need to train poll workers to clear basic paper jams! It's time for them to modernize and make voting easier.”

“Interpreters are a vital part of voting access for so many New Yorkers,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “I support City Hall in the fight to keep them inside polling sites, helping ensure that all New Yorkers have the ability to vote regardless of English literacy.”

“First, the BOE told us more language access at poll sites was not possible because they didn’t have enough money. That’s why I proposed and secured the funding for a pilot program in partnership with Mayor de Blasio that we later expanded to serve New Yorkers in 10 languages at over 100 poll sites across the city. Now, the goal posts have changed again. I continue to be outraged by the lengths the Board of Elections will go to in order to stand between New Yorkers and a fair, democratic voting process. New Yorkers are sick and tired of the BOE’s attempts to use the Voting Rights Act an excuse to disenfranchise New Yorkers. The Voting Rights Act language access provisions are a floor, not a ceiling, and they certainly are not a ‘get-out-of-jail-free card,’ as the BOE has said. New Yorkers are sick and tired of the inhumane practice of forcing interpreters to sit outside, exposed to the elements, conflating this critical service with electioneering. In a city with low voter turnout and a history of disenfranchising voters whose primary language is not English, we should be breaking down barriers, increasing language access and finding ways to empower New Yorkers to get to polling sites with every resource they need to exercise this most American of rights,” said Council Member Mark Treyger.

"I am proud to represent one of the largest Arabic-speaking communities in the country. So what shall I tell my constituents tomorrow when they go to vote? This is exactly why I introduced a bill that calls for the expansion interpreters at poll sites citywide. Language gaps are often barriers to civic engagement for individuals who effectively have their voices shut out of the political process. Our democracy works best when we make it easy for everyone to vote so all of our voices are heard. I really have no idea why the Board of Elections would stand in our way now the day before an important election," said Council Member Justin Brannan.

“The city’s Board of Elections utterly failed voters last year in its awful handling of the midterm elections. Yet now, without a shred of shame or self-awareness, it accuses the City’s attempt to provide interpretation services of being a threat? This is simply unacceptable and inconsistent with fundamental principles of democratic participation. Everyone who has the right to vote must also have the right to interpretation to help them read and navigate a ballot. We must ensure that all voters, including voters whose primary language is not English, have all resources necessary to access the ballot,” said Council Member Carlos Menchaca, Chair of the New York City Council Committee on Immigration.

Council Member Dr. Mathieu Eugene, said, “The city of New York is a vibrant community because of the contributions of our immigrant residents. They are hardworking men and women who have come to the United States to raise a family and pursue the American dream. It is not right when measures are enacted to deter their participation in the democratic process by limiting interpreter access to poll sites. My colleagues and I have advocated for many years to allow more language interpreters at poll sites, and we will continue to work together to protect the voting rights of the immigrant community.”

“Ensuring language access in polling sites is a no-brainer in this city, but rather than expanding our democracy, the Board of Elections is threatening to shrink it – all because of a bureaucratic technicality. Interpreters broaden access to the electoral process for millions of New Yorkers, and we should continue to dismantle the barriers that discourage New Yorkers from exercising their right to vote,” said Council Member Margaret S. Chin. “Before taking office, I filed a lawsuit to urge the Board of Elections to secure multilingual ballots in Asian languages. The BOE’s attempt to expel translators from polling sites serves as a stark reminder that so much more needs to be done to achieve true electoral reform– and that we all need to stay vigilant. I stand with the New York City immigrant community to reject this ill-disguised attempt to undermine full civic participation.”

“It is outrageous that the Board of Elections is taking an active role in making it hard for people to vote in the City of New York” said Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “Our diversity is what makes our City great, but rather than supporting that diversity, the BOE has decided to make it harder to vote by not providing interpreters in polling stations. At a time when voting rights are under attack all over the country, it is critical that NYC leads the way in making it as easy as possible for all our City’s residents to vote.”

“After years of pushing the Board of Elections to make it easier to vote no matter what language you speak, New Yorkers took matters into their own hands by overwhelmingly adopting the Civic Engagement Commission on last November's ballot," said Council Member Ben Kallos. "What the BOE is doing here is shameful. Just days before the special election, the BOE has filed a lawsuit to prevent the will of New Yorkers from being fulfilled at the polls. Thank you to Mayor de Blasio for fighting on behalf of New Yorkers to put interpreters at the polls so this election better reflects our diverse city."

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez said, “In order to promote and safeguard the democratic process of voting, the City is attempting to ensure the Voting Right Act is upheld by placing interpreters in many different languages inside polling sites. It’s unfortunate that the Board of Elections does not share this vision of allowing equal language access inside polling sites. I commend Mayor de Blasio for his initiative of increasing the amount of translation services offered during an election, and I remain committed to increasing the amount of interpreters at public spaces, especially for an election.”

"With our election turnout rates already low, it's clear we need to do everything we can to increase access to the ballot box. The BOE needs to end this lawsuit and finally let the city provide the non-partisan interpreters that will close some of the biggest language gaps at poll sites across the Five Boroughs," said Council Member Carlina Rivera.

Council Member Keith Powers said, "New Yorkers deserve to have access to resources to make the most informed decision at the polls. The BOE's blocking of interpreters is a direct disservice to the democratic process. I thank the Mayor's office for working to right this wrong."

Bronx Democratic Party Chairman Marcos Crespo said, "A voters' primary language should not determine if they have a say in who their elected representatives are. By blocking interpreter services for voters with limited English proficiency, the Board of Elections is doing just that by making it harder for residents of our diverse city from exercising their constitutional right. It is unconscionable that in a city as progressive as New York, the entity that should be seeking ways to expand access to voting would be against this common sense solution."

Staten Island Democratic Party Chairman John P. Gulino said, "It is vitally important that the voting process is opened up to provide access to all of NY's citizens. The exclusion of translators to assist people with different primary languages is anti-democratic and impedes our neighbors of their rights to cast a ballot without the interference of language barriers!"

Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman Frank R. Seddio said, "I'm disappointed that a slim majority of the Board of Elections has made a determination that is grossly and outrageously incorrect with regard to their decision about interpretation services here in NYC. The most diverse city in the world should have a wide range of people who can interpret at poll sites in the many languages of our various immigrant communities."

“Four million New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home, and would benefit from language assistance services to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The Board of Elections should not be throwing up obstacles to their civic engagement by trying to keep city-sponsored interpreters 100 feet from the polls. We applaud the Mayor for his continued support of these services to ensure that all New Yorkers can fully participate in our democracy no matter what language they speak,” said Steven Choi, Executive Director, New York Immigration Coalition.

“The Center for Law and Social Justice applauds all public and civic efforts to increase language translation services at the polls on Election Days. New York citizens speak over 125 languages – therefore providing additional translator services to voters at the polls, beyond the Board of Elections’ capacity or legal mandate, is a good thing! City Hall’s efforts to provide non-partisan, non-candidate affiliated translators within the polls should be heralded. This is a sanctuary city, whose residents are over 40 percent immigrants. Voter turnout within New York City has been abominably low historically. All actions to increase voter services should be embraced and supported,” said Esmerelda Simmons, Executive Director at Center for Law and Social Justice

“Communities across New York City were loud and clear when they told the Charter Revision Commission about the need for more language support at poll sites. Countless New Yorkers rely on these services to participate in our democracy. I hope the Board of Elections will reconsider their threats of a lawsuit, and work with the City and the civil rights community to improve participation and provide greater access to the polls,” said Cesar Perales, Chair of the 2018 Charter Revision Commission.

“The Board of Elections' mission is 'To enfranchise all eligible New Yorkers.' By threatening to block translators the Board of Elections is discouraging participation in our democracy. The Board of Elections should be working with the City to provide better translation services, not wasting time and resources to disenfranchise eligible voters,” said Perry Grossman, Senior Staff Attorney at Voting Rights Project.

"In a city as diverse as New York, interpreters at voting locations play an important role in empowering New Yorkers. This work is fundamental to our democracy and is certainly not electioneering. It is imperative that interpreters be allowed inside of polling sites to ensure that all New Yorkers are able to fully exercise their right to vote in this Tuesday's election, regardless of the language they speak,” said Betsy Gotbaum, Executive Director of Citizens Union.

"Without language access, the right to vote is an empty promise for many limited English New Yorkers," said Amaha Kassa, Executive Director of African Communities Together. "Having interpreters in polling places would be a big step forward for our African immigrant members. The Board of Elections should be partnering with us to engage our communities in the democratic process, not throwing up barriers to access."

Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) Democracy Program Director, Jerry Vattamala, said, "AALDEF supports efforts to assist limited English proficient citizens, in exercising their fundamental right to vote. AALDEF has fought for decades, on behalf of these voters, and will continue to do so. Many Asian American voters are limited English proficient, including some ethnic groups that exceed 60 percent. AALDEF applauds the Mayor's office for its efforts to assist voters and to increase civic engagement. The New York City Board of Elections should be working with community partners to support voters, rather than seeking to scuttle efforts to assist voters. AALDEF will again monitor elections on Election Day, and will vehemently defend the rights of voters to be assisted by a person of their choice inside the voting booth. The right to vote is fundamental, and voters in New York City must be allowed to exercise all of the rights guaranteed to them under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965."

"In New York City if we truly seek to attract people from every walk of Life, from every place on Earth, and meaningfully invite each to interact in Democracy then our polling places must reflect that significant diversity...Translators are now Democracy's ultimate gate-keepers. Neither exclude them and/or any qualified Voter from a polling site. To do otherwise is to permanently park Democracy at the curb. To deny one voter is to deny all,” said F.E.Scanlon, Esq., Former Member Community Board No. 7

"There are far too many barriers for New Yorkers to exercise their right to vote, let's not create another one. Immigrants deserve to have the support they need in order to choose who represents them,” said Annetta Seecharran, Executive Director of Chhaya Community Development Corp.

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