Translators Bridge Gap For Cleveland's Non-English Speaking Voters

Susan Liu from the Cleveland Chinese Senior Citizens Association helps voters translate their ballots. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]
Susan Liu from the Cleveland Chinese Senior Citizens Association helps voters translate the ballot. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]
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The Asian Evergreen Apartments is a senior living facility in Cleveland’s AsiaTown occupied by Asian Americans – most of whom speak little or no English. So when it comes voting, they need some help reading the ballot. 

Mike West from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections offered some voting tips for those who speak something other than English or Spanish as their primary language.

Susan Liu from the Cleveland Chinese Senior Citizens Association translated those tips into Mandarin.

About 10 residents attended this ballot review meeting. [Gabriel Kramer]

One of West's tips – don't put today's date in the section asking for birth date. West says that's a common mistakes for many voters, regardless of their language preferences.

About 10 residents came to Asian Evergreen Apartments meeting and Liu helped all of them translate their ballots.

She even printed sample ballots with Chinese text in place of the English words to use as guidelines.

Liu printed sample ballots with Chinese letters for voters to use as a guide. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]

These residents, she said, want to exercise their right to vote. 

“Our seniors are very active. They watch the news. They know what’s going on around them. But in terms of voting, they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to vote or what’s on the ballot. They don’t understand," Liu said.

According to the U.S. Census bureau, less than 50 percent of the nationwide Asian-American population voted in 2016. More than 60 percent of white Americans voted and nearly 60 percent of Black Americans voted.

Liu believes the language barrier has a lot to do with the lower voter turnout among Asians.

“The number of the population may be small in Cleveland, in the county or even in Ohio state, but the Asian voters’ voice needs to be heard and I think it’s important to do simple, little things to help them," Liu said. 

Less than 50 percent of eligible Asian Americans voted in 2016. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]

According to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, states and political subdivisions must provide language assistance if more than five percent of the local population speaks a certain language.

No parts of Ohio meet those foreign-language population requirements, but many parts of the state still offer a ballot in Spanish.

Voters also have the right to bring interpreters to the polls with them.

The Cleveland American Middle East Organization (CAMEO) helps get translation help for non-English voters, including George Koussa, a CAMEO board member who speaks fluent Arabic.

Koussa hasn’t had any voters come to him for ballot translation yet, but he hopes it will happen this year. Many foreign-born Americans come from countries where voting isn’t even an option, he said.

“To vote, to be able to vote, this is a sense of pride for the new immigrants especially ones who came recently here," Koussa said. "So, the excitement and the sense of pride and dignity – they feel like our vote counts. We feel like we’re part of the process and the American dream." 

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