Dallas County will have to offer Vietnamese election materials and ballots in the upcoming March 1 primary — the first time a language other than English or Spanish has been offered.
This decision is required by federal law because at least 5% of Dallas County Vietnamese citizens of voting age have limited English proficiency.
The Census Bureau notified the county on December 21 of the required change, which, while adhering to the schedule announced by the Bureau earlier in the year, left the county less than two months to recruit Vietnamese-speaking poll workers, translate voting information and ballots and have signs printed in Vietnamese for polling stations before the start of early voting last week.
The Texas primaries are the first in the nation, giving Dallas County — the largest county in the state to make such a change — a particularly compressed window for the dozens of steps compliance will require.
“It’s been kind of a short track,” said Dallas County Department of Elections spokesman Nicholas Solorzano. “We just pushed non-stop on it.”
According to the Census Bureau, nearly 21,000 citizens are of voting age and speak Vietnamese in Dallas County. Dallas now joins Tarrant County — which started in 2018 — and Harris County — which started in 2002 — in offering services in Vietnamese.
Solorzano said the tight turnaround made it difficult to hire enough poll workers for each polling place as required by federal law, forcing the county to rely on a translation service by telephone for most polling stations.
Vietnamese-speaking poll workers will be placed in areas with high concentrations of Vietnamese speakers, particularly in the suburbs of Garland and Sachse. The county also planned to hire a full-time alternate language coordinator who is fluent in Vietnamese and helps with community outreach and translation.
Dallas County narrowly missed the threshold for Vietnamese speakers of voting age in 2016, the last time the census updated the list of jurisdictions included, leading some experts to question why the county did not start recruiting poll workers until forced to do so. to avoid such a steep climb in such a short time.
Tammy Patrick, senior election program adviser at the Democracy Fund, said all counties are struggling to implement new languages because election offices often lack the resources to make the changes and are not eligible for election programs. assistance until the Census Bureau makes new designations. Because Dallas County has such a short implementation schedule, the issues here are compacted.
“The catch here is that too often election officials only have the resources to provide legally required or mandated services and may not have the capacity to fully support additional languages, even if they want to” , she said.
Still, local and national advocates say Dallas County’s response to the new requirement is a good start.
“It’s good for a sort of stopgap measure until they can figure out where to find more people and where to assign them effectively,” said Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, senior attorney at Asian American Legal Defense and Education. fund. “Every American citizen should be able to vote knowingly, and the way they can do that is if they can get that ballot in the language they can read and understand.”
In Texas, nearly a third of Asian Americans have limited English proficiency, according to the census. In Dallas County, 37% of those who speak Vietnamese have limited English proficiency, although not all are citizens of voting age. The Census Bureau estimates that 10,000 of these people live in the county.
Even with a fluency in English, the language of voting measures and voting instructions can make it difficult for those who are not native speakers.
“It’s about accessibility,” said Raymond Partolan, national field director for APIA Vote, a group that works to increase civic participation among Asian and Pacific Islander groups. “It’s always a challenge to work with groups with limited English proficiency, but it’s a big challenge. »
It’s also a growing challenge in Texas, where the Asian American population grew by two-thirds between 2010 and 2020. This growth has led to more counties in Texas adding more Asian languages to the polls. Previous Vietnamese language deployments in Harris and Tarrant counties have not been without hitches. In 2003, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division monitored elections in Houston after the county failed to provide electronic ballots in Vietnamese. The county added Vietnamese electronic ballots the following year.
“To be able to ensure fair access to the vote, it is crucial to ensure that information is offered to everyone in an equitable manner,” said Harris County Communications Director Leah Shah.
Dallas County began contacting local Vietnamese community groups as soon as they were notified of the new requirement, Solorzano said.
Printed materials, such as signs and ballots, were the first to be translated, beginning in January. Solorzano said they continue to translate all documents – from social media posts to official voting notice — on a daily basis.
It’s a time-consuming process, especially with the technical and often complicated language of voting. In 2018, for example, a notice from Bexar County accidentally translated a post using the Spanish word for “sewage” instead of “runoff.”
“You have to think about the context of the vote,” Lorenzo-Giguère said. “What did those words mean?” Is there a real translation in this language for each of these words? »
Then Dallas County began trying to recruit as many Vietnamese-speaking poll workers as possible. It’s hard enough to recruit enough voters to hold elections without worrying about language, Solorzano said. From now on, the county’s recruitment must take into account the command of three different languages.
“We will have Vietnamese translators in person at polling centers located in areas with a significant number of Vietnamese speakers,” Solorzano said.
The rest of the nearly 400 Dallas locations will be equipped with cell phones that voters can use to access translators. The quick effort is impressive, said Lorenzo-Giguère, although his organization – AALDEF – will be on hand during the vote to conduct exit polls and ensure there are no problems with the polls. accessibility for Vietnamese-speaking voters.
“The signs look good so far,” Lorenzo-Giguere said. “If they can just figure out how to effectively recruit and target the assignment of their bilingual poll workers, that will be kind of proof of the pudding.”
The new requirement comes as other groups were already pushing for more Asian American voters to show up in primaries across the state, and particularly in Dallas.
APIA Vote and the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association – APAPA for short – organize phone banks and text message banks in various Asian languages specifically targeting voters in Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio.
Now, they say, they’re pushing really hard to let Vietnamese speakers know that the Dallas polls are even more accessible.
“Voter education is really necessary,” said Alice Yi, president of the Austin chapter of the APAP. “Every time you do [something] for the first time, it is already more difficult.
Yi said she has worked to place notices in local Vietnamese-language newspapers and targeted ads on social media to reach this community and spread the word. Yet this awareness has been slow.
Nancy Tiên, a Vietnamese-American born and raised in Dallas, also works with APPA. She said she grew up helping her bilingual family members learn to vote. Still, the language of the vote was a challenge to interpret.
“Honestly, voting is very intimidating,” Tiên said. “It’s not the most comfortable place to interact with really technical language in a second language.”
Even as an English speaker, she says, learning when and where to vote can be tricky. Navigating in another language can create barriers that prevent minority groups from having a voice.
“Any time a marginalized person has access to the polls, it’s a good thing,” Tiên said. “I am delighted to tell my mother that she can go and vote.”
This article is a collaboration with Votebeata not-for-profit media outlet focused on voting access and election integrity.