Luzerne County’s election day Spanish translation assistance was questioned during county Election Director Marisa Crispell’s budget presentation to the county council this week.
County Councilwoman Kathy Dobash told Crispell she observed voters at three electronic voting machines receiving “side-by-side” translation assistance at her Hazleton polling place as she waited to vote on Nov. 8.
Voters can only receive translation help from someone viewing their ballot if they request this assistance when they register to vote or through a form submitted at the polls, Crispell said. The practice is regulated to prevent inappropriate influence on voter selections.
After reviewing voter records Thursday, Crispell said 25 voters at this Hazleton polling place had requested assistance when they registered. None filled out the forms on election day.
Crispell said the voters Dobash witnessed may have been among the 25. Her office did not receive any election day complaints about questionable translation assistance at that polling place, she said.
“We will continue to examine the matter, but it’s better to bring a concern to our attention at the time it’s occurring. That way, if there is a problem, we can address it so it won’t continue to occur throughout the day,” Crispell said.
The county election office received one election day complaint about a voter at another Hazleton polling place who had received translation assistance from someone viewing the ballot, Crispell said Thursday. Her office immediately contacted the judge of elections to reiterate the requirement for assistance approval, but she was unable to establish whether the voter observed by the caller was among those with permission to receive help.
Due to a rise in Latino city residents, the county retained seven Spanish translators to man most city polling places in the presidential election, paying them $100 for the day. The city is split into 11 election districts, but voters cast their ballots at eight sites because six share the same building.
Translators were required to complete more than four hours in training on election protocol, Crispell said. Training for all election workers emphasizes translators should stand opposite a voter and not view the ballot unless the voter formally obtained permission for assistance, she said.
Voters who request assistance don’t have to rely on county-supplied translators. They can bring someone else, although the law forbids them from relying on the judge of election, their employer or their union representative, she said.
A right to assistance also is available if voters can’t read or write, are blind, disabled or unable to operate the voting machines, the state said.
A total 1,679 county residents were approved for election assistance when they registered to vote, including 168 in Hazleton, Crispell said.
She did not have a countywide total of voters who completed assistance applications on Nov. 8 but said the total in Hazleton was 15, which included seven for language translation.
Translators were brought in through the nonprofit Hazleton Integration Project primarily to help election workers communicate with Spanish-speaking voters as they sign in to vote, she said. The ballot is not an issue because the county has offered a Spanish version on the electronic voting machines since 2012, she said.
Hazleton City Councilman David Sosar votes in a Hazleton ward that had at least seven election day applications for language assistance, and he estimated 75 percent of the voters at his site spoke Spanish. The county did not have statistics on the number of times the Spanish ballot was accessed Nov. 8.
“The number of Hispanics in line continually voting and asking for Spanish ballots was astonishing to me,” said Sosar, a political science professor at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre.
Sosar believes at least half the city’s roughly 25,000 residents are now Latino. The 2010 U.S. Census pegged the number at 37 percent in the city.
A more current countywide 2015 census estimate was available, indicating the percentage of Latino residents increased from 6.7 percent in 2010 to 9.8 percent in 2015 in Luzerne County.
Crispell said she is optimistic bilingual Hazleton residents will run for poll worker positions in coming years to eliminate the expense of paid translators.