Illustration By: Anthony Medrano
Illustration By: Anthony Medrano

What You Need to Know about Language Access at the Polls

If you speak any of these eleven languages, here’s what should be provided to you for voting—and what to do if it’s not.

When you vote this year in Cook County, you can expect to see fully translated ballots and language assistance services in up to eleven languages, thanks to the Voting Opportunity and Translation Equity (VOTE) ordinance. Passed in October 2019, Cook County officials hope this law will help the 35.6 percent of residents who speak a language other than English. In addition to Spanish, Mandarin, and Hindi, the new languages available are Korean, Tagalog, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Arabic, Gujarati, and Urdu. 

Since 2000, the number of immigrants eligible to vote in the U.S. has doubled, according to a Pew Research study. Now, one in ten eligible voters are naturalized citizens. Illinois ranks sixth among states with the most naturalized citizens. But what protections are available for non-English speaking voters? In Chicago alone, 15.7 percent of residents, or 400,000 people, do not speak English as their primary language.

Here’s a rundown of the laws, old and new, that ensure your access to translated ballots and language resources during elections.

What does “language access” look like for voters in the U.S.?

Thanks to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and several amendments to the law since it was first enacted, Americans have the right to translated ballots and voting materials (including registration forms). Translated ballots may come in the form of traditional paper ballots, audio ballots, mail-in and absentee ballots, or voting machines with multiple language options. You may also bring individuals, including family members or translators, to polling places to translate ballots for you. Polls, election offices, registration locations, and any election-related site must include multilingual signage that explains your rights and the kinds of language assistance available to you.

What languages are covered under the law?

Before the VOTE ordinance, Spanish, Mandarin, and Hindi were already protected languages in parts of Cook County—still, not all precincts are required to have more than one non-English language available, and there’s no clear way to know which languages will be available at any given site. During the 2019 Chicago election, only one polling place in the city could provide translated ballots in all three federally protected languages.

As a result of the VOTE ordinance, the Cook County Clerk, in tandem with the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, will now provide language services, including translated ballots and bilingual poll workers and election judges, for the additional eight languages. A pilot program during the March primaries added language services in Korean and Tagalog. For the upcoming November election, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Arabic, Gujarati, and Urdu will be added alongside the existing languages protected by the Voting Rights Act. Translated ballots in these additional eight languages will be available in electronic, audio, and mail-in form in November.

What’s being done now to ensure non-English speakers can access voting information from now until Election Day?

On September 22, with less than six weeks until the November election, county officials met to discuss progress on the ordinance. The translation process is winding down, and language advocates are starting to focus on voter outreach to immigrant communities and finding bilingual election workers. 

Near the end of the hearing, county language advocates and translators spoke about the importance of translating ballots and providing non-English language support.

Nuha Siddiqui, part of a mother-daughter Urdu translation team, said, “Adding more languages to the ballot is an important step toward showing minority communities, especially minority immigrant communities, that they’re seen and their voices matter.”

For those experiencing problems leading up to and on election day, the Cook County Clerk has hotlines for different languages, including Spanish, Polish, Mandarin, and Hindi, as well as for anyone who is deaf or has partial hearing loss See below or access the County Clerk’s website at cookcountyclerk.com. Other organizations with voting rights hotlines include Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and ACLU Illinois.

Hotlines for voters needing assistance

  • En Español: (312) 603-6767
  • 以國語接聽,請撥 : (312) 603-6769
  • Polski: (312) 603-6770
  • टेलीफोन: (312) 603-6743
  • Tagalog: (312) 603-6742
  • 한국어: (312) 603-6745
  • Русский: (312) 603-6751
  • Українська: (312) 603-6752
  • ગુજરાતી: (312) 603-6746
  • اردو: (312) 603-6748
  • عربي: (312) 603-6747
  • TDD: (312) 603-0902

This story was produced by City Bureau, a journalism lab based in Bronzeville. Learn more and get involved at citybureau.org. 

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Paco Alvarez is a freelance writer and a reporting fellow at City Bureau. This is his first piece for the Weekly.

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