A new pilot program aimed towards expanding election day translation services for Russian- and Haitian Creole-speaking voters drew criticism after interpreters were relegated to stations located 100 feet away from polling sites.
“It was inhuman, disgraceful and discriminatory,” Democratic District Leader Ari Kagan said to Coney Island News. “Why were Chinese, Spanish, and Korean translators allowed to sit inside poll sites while Russian and Creole translators were forced to sit far outside under the pouring rain in cold and windy weather?”
The Board of Elections (BOE) kept the interpreters outside amid strong opposition from Republicans, who were upset that the interpreters were hired by The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and assisted by City Council.
“I think there were obviously concerns and these concerns were addressed,” BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan told the New York Post on Nov. 6.
Republican Ray Denaro, who unsuccessfully ran for City Council in Coney Island’s District 47, took to Facebook the day before the election to say he was “angry, upset & appalled” by it and argued that his rights were being “stripped.”
But the program was nonetheless driven by instances of apparent voter disenfranchisement. There was a glaring lack of translation services after a particularly rocky primary election during which Democratic Russian-speaking voters saw their parties change without notice while elderly Russian speakers struggled to locate their polling sites or even read the voting material.
City Councilmember Mark Treyger spoke in front of BOE commissioners in October and pushed for more interpreters.
“We cannot alienate 150,000 New Yorkers from taking advantage of their right to vote, and fulfilling their duty to do so,” Treyger said. “If we are to ensure that the voting process is a fair and equitable one, providing language access for voters is a must.”
In the end, Kagan said the pilot program still benefitted many voters and he hopes it expands to more than just 15 sites. He would like to see state pass a law mandating the BOE to translate voting materials into Russian and for the interpreters to be placed inside the polling sites.
“That is the only way to make BOE to consider Russian as equal language to other languages already used by BOE officials,” Kagan said.