Chicago voters who need language support may be unpleasantly surprised on Election Day: Between the primaries in June and now, the agency that manages the city’s voting apparatus reduced the number of polling places that will provide bilingual ballots and election judges. In the case of Tagalog, spoken by Filipinos, the number of voting precincts equipped to accommodate the language snapped down from 17 during the primary election to just one for the general.
Community and advocacy groups said precinct consolidation by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners — which reduced the number of precincts by 40% from 2,069 to 1,290 — is to blame. Mandated by a new state law, aimed in part at cutting administrative costs, the precinct reduction has resulted in a negative, if unintended, consequence for voters with limited English proficiency, they say. About 15% of Chicago’s voting-age population is considered “limited English proficient,” according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey (ACS).
“With recent consolidation, the precincts got larger, so there is a real likelihood that [limited English proficient] communities are being diluted” and no longer able to meet the 5% threshold, according to Kimberly Leung, the voting rights legal fellow at Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, one of the groups sounding the alarm about language access for Asian immigrants in particular.
A precinct is designated as “limited English proficient” if at least 5% of the population are “members of a single language minority group, have depressed literacy rates, and do not speak English very well,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Voters in that precinct are entitled to language services in the form of bilingual printed materials and bilingual election judges.
According to figures provided by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, the total number of limited English proficient precincts decreased from 970 in the June primary election to 623 in the general. While all covered languages — Spanish, Polish, Chinese, Hindi, Tagalog and Korean — saw reductions in the number of precincts, some communities experienced more drastic decreases than others.
Because the number of limited English proficient precincts have decreased, so have the number of such polling places, some of which accommodate more than one precinct.
An ‘Extreme Crunch’
Chicago Board of Election Commissioners spokesman Max Bever said the consolidation of limited English proficient precincts was done using data from the ACS, which are estimates based on sample size, not actual headcounts of limited English proficient speakers.
Ami Gandhi, senior counsel for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said the ACS data is “one piece of the puzzle, but paints an incomplete picture” because of factors such as sample size, the census bureau’s access to hard-to-reach communities, margins of error and linguistic diversity. Input from community leaders, she said, can bring these nuances to light. “The provision of language assistance is always best done when it is determined by government authorities and community leaders being in conversation,” she said.
Leung, with Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, agrees. She said the elimination of many language precincts due to the potential dilution of the 5% threshold could have been avoided if community members and organizations had been part of the conversation earlier. She said local groups know best where immigrant populations live and where they have historically voted. She also said securing language access for immigrant voters has been an ongoing issue, including the June primaries during which the Board came under fire for not updating voter information on its website for various Asian languages.
“There is room for more strategic and meaningful community partnership” with the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, Leung said. She added that the U.S. Department of Justice guidelines “have made it clear that community engagement is critical to implementation” of Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.
Bever, with the board, said the agency was under an “extreme crunch” to comply with a new state law that raises the number of voters per precinct. Bever said the lengthy and contentious redistricting process in the Chicago City Council also contributed to the time constraints.
“There unfortunately was not a lot of time for a very meaningful community engagement process,” Bever said. “The board did consult with City Council members for each ward to identify any potential voting access issues.”
He said the coalition of groups, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, sent the Board a list of 27 additional precincts that may not meet the 5% threshold but could use additional language support.
While it is too late to print election materials in other languages for those 27 precincts for the Nov. 8 election, Bever said, the board hopes to make those ballots available in the 2023 municipal election. He added that if the board recruits enough bilingual election judges for November, it will staff as many of the 27 precincts from the coalition’s list as possible.
Bever added that recruiting enough election judges has been a challenge overall, not just for the limited English proficient precincts. He noted that each precinct on Election Day will have one touchscreen machine with the ballot in 12 languages.
Language access is more than just translation
Al Cabagnot, 68, said these efforts are important, especially for older Filipino residents in Chicago. Although he is fluent in English, Cabagnot said “other seniors, especially from the provinces in the Philippines, and those who have just become a US citizen — they’re having a hard time understanding.”
Cabagnot said he and others have opted for the mail-in option and that often many Filipinos go to the polls in groups or have their families assist them on Election Day. However, he added, there needs to be help for those who have missed the window for the mail-in ballots or don’t have family around.
Ryan Viloria, executive director of the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment, said the city should leverage Filipino hubs like Seafood City, as well as engage more with the community. Language access, Viloria said, is more than a poll worker “simply pointing at the screen and hoping that you get the equivalent phrase” in another language.
He said while the Filipino population is spread out throughout the city “to the point of dilution,” they are part of a growing Asian population in Chicago and Illinois, and government officials should do more to reach them. Viloria said that while the city saved $2 million by consolidating precincts, that could ultimately overwhelm election judges, weaken language access, and “probably harms us more in the long run.”
He added: “If the city doesn’t care enough to help get Filipinos to the voting booths, do they really care about the Filipino political voice then?”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.