Korean-translated ballots are being readied for debut in March 15 Illinois primary

By Colin Mo

When Cook County votes in the March 15 primary, Korean-Americans living in Cook County will for the first time have the option to use ballots that are translated into Korean, and the Chinese community is primed to help them with the transition.

“The Chinese community stands by the Korean community, and we will do our best to share our experiences with them to help them ease into a translated voting experience,” said C.W. Chan, chair of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community. “There are many challenges ahead, but [sample translated ballots] is just the first stepping stone.”

Cook County election officials decided to include translated Korean sample ballots for the upcoming primary elections and further elections down the line, as projected estimates show that the Korean community in Cook County will reach the threshold for requiring a fully translated voting experience by the next census.

According to Noah Praetz, Director of Elections of the Cook County Clerk’s Office, the Korean community in Chicago “got close but did not quite make the cut” in the last 2010 census. However, the office made the decision to provide sample Korean translated ballots for the 2016 elections, and will be working together with the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center (KRRC) to provide Korean bilingual judges at the polling places to help smooth out the voting process for non-proficient English speakers who rely heavily on Korean.

“There are 37,000 Koreans in Cook County today, and 40 percent of them struggle with English,” said Jim Allen, Communications Director of Chicago’s Board of Election. “They need help, and we’re going to provide it.”

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act mandates translated voting materials including notices, forms, instructions, assistance, and many other items in the voting process if the minority that speaks the language has an adequate amount of non-proficient English speakers. The threshold number for non-proficient English speakers of a certain language is 10,000 or over five percent total in a single political subdivision.


The panelists together, with a picture of the translated sample ballot. (Colin Mo/MEDILL)

However, election officials are also aware that they can only meet the citizens halfway.

“This is incredible development, but only as good as the people using it,” said Allen.

“Like anything else, it comes down to involvement,” said Praetz. “We hope to provide a more pleasant experience, more engaged with the voting process, and not intimidated by it.”

Chan agreed, and said, “For the Chinese community, the translated voting experience is a privilege. We must also do our civic duty to exercise our right to vote.”

Praetz noted that increasing voter turnout “was definitely one of our hopes” when providing translated Korean sample ballots, but that “the evidence is still shaky on that.”

By hiring and providing Korean bilingual judges at the polling places, election officials hope to attract the family members of those judges to vote as well, as they will “feel involved,” Praetz added.

Chan, however, says that for the Chinese community in Cook County, voter registration has seen a 400 percent increase in the 10 years since they began receiving the “fully translated voting experience.

“The next step is to get people to actually vote,” said Chan. “And the fully translated voting experience helps with that. We have Chinese posters, notifications, flyers, and mail. The community is aware.”

The KRCC plans on doing outreach to the Korean community to make sure they get out and vote this year, in the hopes that these Asian American voters are not “too busy.”

In response to the common narrative that “my one vote doesn’t matter,” the Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Chicago website states: “We are working to convince our communities that not only do their votes matter (countering a common narrative of “my one vote doesn’t matter,” sentiment that affects many communities), but that voting should be a priority, and it will make a difference (particularly in local races). We have found that our messages have resonated with voters in the past, and we are looking to mobilize more infrequent voters this year.”

For those who are anxious to see fully translated voting screens on the voting machines, Allen warns that the budget for new machines may become an issue down the road. However, this will not be a priority until the next US census in 2020, in which they fully expect Koreans to make the threshold.

“The current machines are almost at full capacity for hosting languages,” said Allen. “If we want to add more languages to the machines, we might end up getting completely new ones for the Korean and Polish groups.”

But before that, the Korean community is encouraged to show their enthusiasm for the support extended to help their voting experience by exercising their right to vote. The Board of Elections will be taking note.

Photo at top: Noah Praetz holds the sample translated Korean ballot. (Colin Mo/MEDILL)