Numerous language barriers and voter registration issues plagued southern Brooklyn’s Russian-speaking population on primary election day, and all signs indicate the problems will not be resolved before November’s pivotal general election.
Democratic District Leader Ari Kagan told Coney Island News that Russian-speaking voters, many of whom resided within eastern Coney Island’s City Council district 48, sought his assistance on the day of the Sept. 12 primary because they were unable to receive translation services in Russian and, at times, saw their respective parties change without notice.
The dysfunction seemingly marked another chapter in a years-long struggle by the area’s Russian-speaking voters to overcome language barriers in the time leading up to — and during — elections. In 2013, then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio urged the Board of Elections to begin translating voting materials into Russian, writing that the language barrier “continues to hinder full participation in elections.”
Yet, four years later, these problems have continued to persist. In one instance during the September primary, Kagan said he saw a wheelchair-bound 70-year-old Russian-speaking voter who located his polling site but was initially unable to find assistance overcoming the language barrier. “Thankfully, I found one Bulgarian American poll worker who understood Russian a little bit,” Kagan said.
Others were unable to find their polling locations at all and were left scrambling to find answers before the polls closed.
“I personally helped one 91-year-old Russian-speaking voter who was turned away from one of the polling sites,” Kagan said. “He bumped into me on a street and begged me to help him. It took us a while, but we finally found his site.”
Some polling stations were found to have Russian interpreters. One Board of Elections coordinator at St. Marks Schools, Thea Nelli, wrote on Facebook that her polling site used two Russian-speaking inspectors — one for Democrats and one for Republicans. The inspectors repeated words to her in English when further assistance was needed.
Yet, many said polling sites in growing Russian-speaking neighborhoods around Coney Island had no Russian translators at all.
Where did the money go?
New York City Council announced in June that $2.9 million was invested toward modernizing the Board of Elections, and City Councilmember Mark Treyger said in a Facebook post following the primary election that he expected the funds would go towards providing these necessary services.
“Not only has the Board of Elections not used the money we secured for them to hire translators, they continue to tell poll workers that Russian is not an authorized language at poll sites,” he wrote. “The hostility the Board of Elections has towards immigrant communities will not be tolerated and will be met with a fierce response.”
According to the Board of Elections’ website, poll workers are only directed to provide Spanish and Chinese translation services in Brooklyn. When we contacted the Board of Elections about this, they cut us off, told us they had to speak to their legal team, and never responded again despite further requests for comment.
Lack of translation services extended beyond just the Board of Elections. In the time leading up to the election, the New York City Campaign Finance Board provides a voter guide for locals, which includes key information about candidates on the ballot in upcoming elections. But the board does not provide it in Russian, nor is it required to.
“The Campaign Finance Board provides Voter Guide editions in the five languages covered under the federal Voting Rights Act,” a Campaign Finance Board spokesperson told Coney Island News. “For New York City, those languages are Bengali, Chinese, English, Korean, and Spanish.”
Democrat today, Reform Party tomorrow?
Kagan said many Russian-speaking seniors who were voting in the Democratic primary race were told that their names could not be found on rolls of registered Democrats despite voting as Democrats for a decade.
Kagan explained that several people contacted him and said they unsuccessfully tried to vote at the Shorefront Y in Brighton Beach because “their names inexplicably were found on a list of Reform Party members.”
Unsurprisingly, the issues coincided with one of the worst turnouts for an election in the city’s history. There were 1.1 million Democrats registered in Kings County as of April 1, 2017, according to the state’s Board of Elections, but only 153,659 Brooklynites voted in the mayoral race. A mere 4,411 people voted in the Democratic primary election between Chaim Deutsch and Marat Filler.