By Helen Gym and
Marian K. Schneider
When it comes to low-turnout elections like this month's mid-terms, the public is quick to blame voter apathy. But the real reasons behind low turnout aren't always what people think.
In a predominantly African American district in Chester, some voters couldn't cast their ballots on Nov. 4 because no election officials showed up at their precinct. The nonpartisan Election Protection Coalition, which answers the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline, had a volunteer onsite at Chester Fire Station 82, and he notified officials of the problem early. Although the county's initial solution was to move the precinct to another location in the city (one that was not within walking distance of the original), objections by voters, advocacy groups, and others eventually caused the county to secure a new staff that opened the original polling place - almost four hours late.
While such situations are not always commonplace, one serious and rampant problem is the lack of language assistance for citizens who speak little or no English, particularly in Pennsylvania's Asian American and Latino communities. According to a recent report by Asian Americans Advancing Justice, nearly half of Philadelphia's Asian population has limited English proficiency. These voters don't suffer from apathy; on the contrary, our outreach efforts showed many are eager to exercise their civic rights. But the lack of language support at the polls was an overwhelming barrier.
Philadelphia provided 11 Asian interpreters to cover tens of thousands of voters speaking dozens of languages and dialects on Nov. 4. Yet this was an improvement over 2012, when four Asian interpreters were deployed citywide.
According to BPSOS-Delaware Valley and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Asian American voters still encountered difficulties on Election Day. Voters with limited English proficiency were not properly assisted with ballots, told to go to incorrect polling places, or prevented from using the designated translation phone line. Even when translators were present, in some cases they lacked sufficient language skills to assist appropriately. Asian Americans United fielded about 50 phone requests from voters for language assistance on Election Day.
Pennsylvania has a lot of work to do. In addition to polling place issues and language barriers, we saw a recurrence of familiar problems that deprive voters of their rights:
Voters not listed in the poll books, even when they've voted in the same precinct for years.
Local election boards that have trouble setting up electronic voting systems.
Poll workers who fail to provide voters with provisional ballots when they should.
Confusion over the most basic question, "Where do I vote?"
Voting matters, and the harder it is for people to vote, the less likely they are to participate. We need to go from bemoaning low turnout to addressing the issue by making it easier for qualified citizens to register and vote.
We can fix this. Some steps can happen right away, like more poll-worker training on basic issues, or assigning bilingual translators to precincts with language needs. Others are more systemic, such as expanding choices for voting - such as early voting, no-excuse absentee ballots, and Election Day or same-day registration.
Recommendations for improvements to the voting process were released early this year in the bi-partisan report of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. One of those recommendations is online voter registration. Yet despite the Pennsylvania Senate's unanimous passage of an online voter registration bill in April 2013, the House failed to put the bill to a committee vote. The commission also recommended that jurisdictions provide bilingual assistance in any polling place with a significant number of voters who do not speak English. As demonstrated earlier this month, Pennsylvania is not there yet.
With the election of a new governor, Pennsylvania has an opportunity to take new steps to bring its election administration into the 21st century. The new governor and his cabinet should be out in front on making a better experience for all of the commonwealth's voters. We call on Gov.-elect Tom Wolf to make voting improvement a priority in the new administration. Our democracy demands nothing less.