I wish there were a better way to handle this.

The Harris County Clerk’s office on Monday defended a decision by election workers to bar translators offering assistance to Korean-American voters from a Spring Branch polling site the day before.

The county said translators are free to approach voters outside the 100-foot protected zone at each polling place, but Dona Kim Murphey of the Korean-American Association of Houston said Harris County is too strict in its interpretation of the Texas Election Code.

“Nowhere does it say we can’t offer that translation at the entrance of the facility,” Murphey said. “That is unacceptable.”

Local Korean-language outlets urged voters to cast ballots at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center on Sunday because translators, including Murphey, would be there to provide assistance. She said poll workers barred the group of translators from asking Korean speakers in line if they needed help.

The translators were permitted to approach voters in the parking lot, but Murphey estimated they were only able to help 40 to 50 Korean speakers instead of the hundreds they had planned. Several thousand Korean-Americans reside in Spring Branch, and more than 30,000 live in the Houston area.

Douglas Ray, a deputy in the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said the translators were considered loiterers under the Texas Election Code when they were inside the polling place, because they lacked a “legitimate business purpose” for being there. The code bars loitering and electioneering — advocating for a particular cause or candidate — within the 100-foot protection zone.


Voters are permitted to bring translators for assistance, so long as they swear an oath to translate accurately. Ray said the problem arose Sunday because the translators were asking voters if they needed help, instead of the other way around. Though journalists and exit pollsters are permitted to speak to voters waiting in line, with the permission of poll workers, Ray said translators offering help are prohibited.

Ray said translators are free to offer their services to voters at any point before they enter the 100-foot zone.

“We just don’t want them to solicit inside the polling place,” he said.

Sam Taylor, spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office, said the election code supports Harris County’s rationale because a translator who has yet to be requested by a voter does not meet the description of an authorized person who is permitted at a polling place.

See here for an earlier story. I suspect the county’s interpretation of the law is accurate, though perhaps there’s room for a little slack. More likely, I’d say this law was built on some less-than-progressive assumptions and could use a revamp by the Legislature. Wouldn’t be the first time this was the case. I’d like to see someone give this a thorough review and put forth a bill that makes it easier for well-meaning volunteers like the folks from the Korean American Association of Houston to help the people who need it at the polls.

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6 Responses to Translators

  1. C.L. says:

    If you can’t speak English, how are you going to read a ballot ? If all you can go by is character recognition (Cruz or O’Rourke, for example) on that tiny little screen, are you really an informed voter ?

  2. Jules says:

    That’s what the translators are for. Some ballots are required to be in languages other than English.

    Are you an informed voter?

  3. C.L. says:

    I am.

    They’re allowing translators in the booths with the voter ?

  4. Jules says:

    Yes. Now you are more informed.

  5. Mainstream says:

    Do these “translators” have a partisan agenda? Will they be neutral when they “help” the voters to cast their ballots?

  6. Sue says:

    All voters are permitted to bring an assistant, if they need one. Whether the assistant is translating or helping them in some other way, they are not allowed to influence or tell the voter how to vote. They take an oath that they will not influence and sign an affidavit when they sign in. In lieu of bringing their own assistant, the election clerks are also there to help, and each site has multiple bilingual clerks who are trained on election law and are available to assist as well. The problem occurs when groups of translators show up and expect to be able to solicit the voters in the polling site. If you are within the 100 foot marker, you are in the polling site. More than 145 languages are spoken in Houston. If you allow one group of bilinguals to solicit, you must allow all the different languagr translators to solicit. Can you imagine what kind of circus that would cause? The election workers have enough to do without having to monitor different groups of translators. The only people allowed in the polls are the voters, their personally chosen assistant, and the election workers. And, because the clerks do not speak multiple languages and since they can’t be looking over the shoulders of the voter and the translator who the voter does not personally know, there is no way of determining whether that translator is simply translating or taking advantage of the voter by directing them in a way other than how they truly want to vote. At least the assistant whom the voter personally knows and trusts enough to help them will be more likely to honor their choice and simply help with the language barrier. This particular group of translators at the center of this story are Beto supporters per their FB page, so who knows if they were simply translating or manipulating. I will assume they were simply trying to help their community by translating, but this does add a partisan element to the situation and for obvious reasons, is not good for the integrity of the vote. I would say the same thing if it was a group of Ted Cruz tea partiers wanting to help translate.

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