Election officials in need of more bilingual poll workers for Lehigh, Northampton counties

Written by on October 21, 2020

Election officials in need of more bilingual poll workers for Lehigh, Northampton counties

By Genesis Ortega

October 21, 2020

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“Vote Here” by lettawren is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Latinos make up almost 15% of eligible voters in Lehigh and Northampton counties. And with the 2020 presidential contest expected to be just as close as it was in Pennsylvania in 2016, Latino voters could have a significant impact. But as WLVR’s Genesis Ortega reports, people working to get out the vote say Latinos still face serious obstacles when it comes to voting.  

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For some Latino voters, going to a polling place can be an unsettling experience. There can be a lot of unknowns.

Confusing terminology. Language barriers. Cultural differences with last names. 

“Many Hispanic people use two last names, not one last name,” said Erika Sutherland, a Spanish professor at Muhlenberg College. 

Sutherland is working with Lehigh County to train bilingual poll workers and interpreters for the election. 

“And I have to say the PA DMV is not very good with last names, and so last names are routinely switched, like the first last name may appear as the second last name.”

So poll workers will learn how to intervene when a voter is turned away because their last name is not on the rolls. 

Common spelling mistakes are also a problem. Take the last name “Vega” – that ‘V’ sometimes gets replaced with a ‘B.’ Sutherland says the problem is these errors largely go unnoticed until it’s time to vote. 

This is a big concern for Enid Santiago, a community activist and contender in Pennsylvania’s state House race for District 22. She says this issue played out during the primary election when an elderly Latina was not allowed to vote.

“We found out that she has two last names, and the poll workers were not putting the hyphen in the middle. So that simple, small detail was not allowing them to find her,” said Santiago.

Santiago calls this “voter oppression,” but Erika Sutherland of Muhlenberg College puts it this way.

“I think there is pernicious voter suppression and there is passive voter suppression. And I would say that is passive voter suppression.”

Sutherland says language barriers are by far the greatest challenge for voters with limited English fluency. 

The Voting Rights Act calls for bilingual voting materials in any county where more than 5% of the population speaks a language other than English. 

Lehigh is one of only three counties in Pennsylvania that meet that bar.

But while the county does provide a Spanish-language ballot, Sutherland says there’s also a need for in-person interpretation. 

“Frankly, some of those translations that are on the Spanish version aren’t the best translation, so our interpreters are trained to help walk someone through to explain what something means.”

There are also significant Spanish-speaking communities in Bethlehem and Easton – but Northampton County doesn’t meet the 5% bar laid out in the Voting Rights Act.

Katia Perez, a canvasser for the advocacy group Democracy For All, says there is another option for voters in those areas. 

“If you need someone to help you translate and you’re outside of Lehigh, Berks, and Philadelphia counties, bring someone with you, and you do have the right to have that person go inside the polling place with you to help you translate.”

These obstacles could affect voting representation for the more than 80,000 Latinos eligible to vote in Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district. 

And while Sutherland says poll worker training is part of the remedy, she says, “as the world changes, sometimes the people who are volunteering to work at the polls aren’t changing.”

Several trainings for bilingual poll workers are happening at the end of October, but county officials say they’re concerned that not enough people will show up on Election Day to provide language support.

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