Chicago Election Commissioners support bilingual voters, but still fall short of community needs

A polling place in Pilsen. (Kelly Heinzerling/MEDILL)

By Kelly Heinzerling

Medill Reports 

When Sarah Cartagena went to Humboldt Park to vote with her predominantly Spanish-speaking mother, she was surprised to find that, though the materials and signs were in multiple languages, the poll worker she interacted with in this large Spanish-speaking community did not speak the language.  

For the 15.7% of Chicago residents who do not speak English as their primary language, according to the U.S. Census’s 2015 American Community Survey, this is an experience many will share on Election Day.  However, Chicago’s Board of Election Commissioners stepped up their efforts to serve bilingual voters this year, with bilingual election judges speaking five non-English languages assigned to precincts throughout Chicagoland and seven additional languages available on ballot touchscreens.

The Board of Election’s Spanish coordinator Sarita Villarreal said that it is her role to ensure that there is at least one nonpartisan Spanish-speaking election judge serving in the region’s 915 precincts designated by the U.S. Department of Justice.  This year, Villarreal noted that there were many new judges who registered to participate, particularly more high school students than in previous years.  

In addition to the 915 Spanish bilingual precincts, 204 precincts have Polish bilingual election judges, 61 precincts have Mandarin bilingual election judges, 56 precincts have Hindi bilingual election judges, and 27 precincts have Korean bilingual election judges.  This is the first general election where Korean bilingual election judges will be at voting locations and touchscreen ballots will also be available in Polish, Tagalog, Russian, Ukrainian, Arabic, Gujarati, and Urdu.

However, the efforts Chicago has made to reach limited-English-proficient communities are far from sufficient, according to activists working with immigrant communities.

“The state needs to put more attention into making sure language access is available, especially in neighborhoods in Chicago,” said Irfan Ibrahim, an Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights’ Democracy Project fellow at The Indo-American Center.

Ibrahim and his team have been helping his community of West Ridge prepare for the election through “a huge emphasis on providing language access.”  This includes having some of their core volunteers who are fluent in Indian languages such as Urdu serve as election judges at polling places in the neighborhood.

“The essential goal is to make sure that people have not just the right to vote, but the pathway to do so in a way that makes sure their vote is counted, especially in undercounted communities,” Ibrahim said.

He said that language inclusion is more important than ever in an election like this one, where people have been trying “to guilt people, especially immigrants, to vote.”  Ibrahim seeks to help his community build “a healthy relationship” with voting, engaging and educating voters with nonpartisan information in the language they are most comfortable. 

Voters in Pilsen, a neighborhood with a large Spanish-speaking community, said that making sure that all languages are represented is important to them, as well.

“I think (bilingual election judges) should definitely be a part of this election, every election we definitely need to be inclusive, especially in Chicago,” said Mildred Idalia Ponce de León, Pilsen resident and dual language coordinator at a school in Albany Park.  “I’m completely for bilingualism and inclusiveness, even though Trump and MAGA means ‘Make America White Again,’ this country is very diverse and we need to include everyone.”

The Voting Opportunity and Translation Equity (VOTE) Ordinance, which unanimously passed in Cook County in Oct. 2019, expanded the federal Voting Rights Act which required voting materials to be available in Chicago in Spanish, Mandarin, and Hindi, as there were more than 10,000 voting-age citizens that were limited-English-proficient who spoke those languages.  Per the VOTE ordinance, Korean and Tagalog-translated ballots in electronic, audio, and mail-in form became available in the March 2020 primaries, with the option of Polish, Russian, Ukranian, Arabic, Gujarati, and Urdu included for the 2020 general election.   

Although there have been efforts to help the limited-English-proficient voters during this  election, activists say there is always more to do to empower immigrant communities to vote.

“We want to make sure the community feels like, ‘Hey my voice matters and I want to lend it to this,’” Ibrahim said.  “Immigrants have civic power that we want to fully set forth in motion and utilize, and that shows up in your vote and that shows up in your awareness of the issues on the ballot.”

At the Joseph Jungman Elementary School voting location in Pilsen, which had one Spanish bilingual election judge and two Mandarin bilingual election judges, election coordinator Simpson Leung said he had yet to see a voter who could not read the ballot in his two weeks working early voting or the general election. 

Kelly Heinzerling is a video reporter at Medill, specializing in immigrant communities in Chicago.