Changes to state law that would allow for more interpreters at polling places could begin with a push from Minneapolis.
That’s the message of the Minneapolis City Clerk’s Office, which is asking the City Council to include a voting interpreters proposal to the list of initiatives it will push for when the Minnesota Legislature convenes early next year.
Currently, voters who cannot read English are allowed to bring an interpreter to help at the polls. They can also get assistance from an on-site election judge, if that person happens to speak their native language. But Anissa Hollingshead, an analyst in the City Clerk’s Office, said those measures don’t do enough to ensure voters with limited English skills can fully participate in elections.
“Here in Minneapolis, the importance of this issue has been growing with each election,” she told the council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee. “As one of the people who has been directly involved in voter education and outreach work in the city, I can say this is both a wonderful and challenging problem.”
Hollingshead said local election officials are faced with a growing number of people who need help with the voting process. Minneapolis provides its voter information materials in English, Spanish, Hmong and Somali, and sometimes has bilingual elections judges. But with strict rules for judges — polling places must have one from both major political parties — Hollingshead said it’s tough to also provide translation help at all 125 polling places across the city.
Council Member Blong Yang, the first Hmong-American elected to the council, said current rules are too restrictive and don’t do enough to look out for people who need assistance, particularly elderly people with limited English skills. Pick a random polling place, he said, and there’s a good chance there won’t be an interpreter on hand.
“I think in that sense, disenfranchisement happens from the beginning,” he said.
Officials haven’t released the specifics of any law change they’d propose, but Hollingshead said it would provide local jurisdictions more flexibility, rather than creating a blanket policy change.
She said no other Minnesota cities have tried to change the rules, but added that the rest of the state seems to be paying close attention to what happens in Minnesota’s largest city.
“It seems like movement on this issue at a state level will need to be led by Minneapolis, and ultimately will serve to benefit residents across the state,” she said.
Yang said that while providing interpreters would come with a cost, Minneapolis should be willing to make the investment.
“I just think we should make it easier for people to vote,” he said. “That’s what Minnesota is known for, that’s what we’re good with.”
The council is still considering which items to list as its priorities for the next Legislative session.