Advocates are sounding the alarm that Chicago’s Asian American immigrant communities will be ill-prepared for this month’s primary elections due to language access issues.
A coalition of Asian American advocacy and community organizations says the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners has not provided up-to-date information on its website about June 28 primary elections in key Asian languages. The group also says the board has not sufficiently engaged Asian American partners to ensure robust participation within the fastest-growing demographic in the city and state.
The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners “missed a great opportunity to make the best of an off-election year by preparing in-language materials and engaging, educating and registering new voters,” said Shobhana Johri Verma, executive director of South Asian American Policy & Research Institute (SAAPRI).
Verma said some web pages on the Board’s website, including ones about new voter registrations, still refer to a primary election on March 15, 2022 — the primary election’s original date that was pushed back to June 28, 2022, after census data was delayed largely due to the pandemic.
“How does that serve a voter who is using the website as a resource to be able to apply online, keeping in mind all the different deadlines that are critical?” Verma asked, noting that in this day and age, the website is the “go-to place … for information and updates related to an election.”
Verma also added that Hindi is a language required under Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act. Section 203 mandates that a state or municipality must provide language help to voters, if more than 5% of voting-age citizens are members of a single-language minority group. Spanish and Chinese are also required languages under Section 203.
Other languages in which the Board’s website has outdated information are Korean and Tagalog. While they are not protected under federal law, they are included in the 2019 Cook County ordinance that mandates fully translated ballots and voting materials in eight additional languages other than English, Spanish, Chinese and Hindi.
Ryan Viloria, executive director of the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights & Empowerment, said the web pages on the Board’s website that are translated in Tagalog are either outdated or incomplete.
As of Tuesday, two weeks before primary election day and with deadlines for both mail-in and online voter registration having already passed, web pages on the Board’s website in Tagalog for new voter registration information were still referring to the November 2020 election. Other web pages that include information about candidates and how residents can serve as election judges or poll watchers were nearly blank, with placeholder text that read, “Tagalog translations for this web page are incomplete. Thanks for your patience.”
“It’s disheartening in a sense that we knew [the election] was coming,” Viloria said. “This is something that could have been worked on very well in advance because these dates aren’t exactly arbitrary.”
The Korean translations on the Board’s website, too, are out of date, according to Youngwoon Han of HANA Center, an Albany Park-based group that serves the Korean American and other immigrant communities. Like with the website’s Tagalog pages, the new voter registration page in Korean, for example, still refers to the November 2020 election.
Han added that HANA Center has also fielded calls from Korean-speaking voters who said a hotline number that is included in materials “recycled from the last election” sends callers to English-speaking staff at the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
Advocates also said the agency has been less proactive than in years past about partnering with groups on voter education and outreach.
Inhe Choi, HANA’s executive director, said “there was absolutely no partnership [this election cycle]. If they had funding cuts, we understand changes happen, but with zero communication, we felt that was not right.”
In April, the coalition approached the Board about the lack of engagement and the delay in updating materials. Board staffers have been meeting twice a month with the coalition, but advocates say little change has been made.
Some say one reason for the decrease in language services in Tagalog and Korean could be due to key contract positions not being renewed at the Board after the 2020 election.
Max Bever, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, said the agency “did not come to an agreement” with those workers after their term ended on Nov. 30, 2020. Asked why the Board did not find new contractors to fill those positions, Bever said the Board’s budget did not have a line item for those roles because “there was no election in 2021.”
“We are keen to hire full-time staff members in those positions after we get budgeted for it — and perhaps hopefully ahead of the Nov. 8 election,” he added.
Bever also acknowledged the issues on the Board’s website, saying, “there might be a few pages still on the website … that might not be the most up to date or have had a new translator take a look at them within the last year.” But, he said, many of the “important” web pages have been updated, and that website translations for Korean and Tagalog have been “a coordinated effort between the city and [Cook] County.” Bever did not provide a target date for when the changes will be made.
He said, given the challenges of regularly translating full websites in several languages, a future redesign of the Board’s website may have to rely on automatic plug-ins like Google Translate.
Advocates criticized this idea, saying “it does more disservice to voters,” according to Verma. According to the groups, best practice is to have translations handled by a professional, coupled with a community review of the language.
“Language access requires investment,” said Kimberly Leung, the voting rights legal fellow at Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, who has been involved in the biweekly meetings with Board staffers. “When I’ve seen organizations do language access well, there is absolutely that culture and that infrastructure.”
Advocates also said the Chicago Board of Elections Commissioners only agreed to seek full-time Korean and Tagalog language assistance staff after the coalition approached the Board in April.
They said they are hoping for the best for the June 28 primary, but in some ways, the damage has been done.
“I would hate to admit that it is too late,” said Verma, with SAAPRI. “[But] we do have serious concerns about the June primaries because they’re around the corner.” She added that the coalition is also concerned about the lack of poll workers and election judges with Asian language skills, plus the training for those workers is being done online in English. Bever said hiring for election day workers has been a citywide challenge, and that the Board looks forward to in-person trainings once the pandemic subsides.
Leung said the lack of language access for Asian American immigrant populations is an urgent problem, particularly during a time of “peak” anti-Asian hate.
“How do we move from a narrative of … victimization to one of coming into power and having agency?” Leung asked, adding there is a strong negative correlation between having limited English proficiency and voter participation.
“If we’re talking about access to power, the most fundamental right here is the right to vote,” Leung added, “and language barrier is a very real problem with respect to accessing that right.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.