A patchwork of agencies, stakeholders and community groups help provide language-specific educational materials and translation services around city elections, what experts say is essential to making sure residents aren’t locked out of the democratic process.

Adi Talwar

A voter being assisted at PS 94 Kings College School in The Bronx in 2021.

New York City residents speak hundreds of different languages—as many as 800, according to some estimates. Almost a quarter of the city’s population, nearly two million people, are not proficient in English, officials say.

That makes New York one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the world. On Election Day, it can contribute to low voter turnout. “We’ve identified language access as just one of many barriers that unfortunately impact voters,” said Gauree Patel, senior manager of partnerships at the NYC Campaign Finance Board, which runs the city’s campaign finance system.

It’s also one of several government agencies, stakeholders and community groups that help provide language-specific educational materials and translation services around elections, what experts say is essential to making sure residents aren’t locked out of the democratic process. The need for robust language services isn’t just contained to the ballot box, they add—true civic engagement requires access to information well ahead of Election Day.

“There’s a whole bunch of things that I think are impacted by language barriers,” said Dr. Sarah Sayeed, chair and executive director of NYC Civic Engagement Commission. “It’s general knowledge about how elections work—primary versus general, how to register to vote, absentee ballots, there’s all kinds of things about that—and then also what to do when you walk in and how to actually physically vote inside a polling station.”

Much has changed in recent years when it comes to language access at the city’s poll sites—and thanks to recently passed legislation, more change is on the way. City Limits spoke to experts involved in those efforts and put together this guide about services currently available, how to access them, and what’s ahead.

You can bring a helper to the poll site

Voters in New York City are legally entitled to bring someone along to assist in the voting process, as long as it’s not their boss or their union rep. For non-English speakers, that might be a family member or friend that can help translate ballot materials and instructions—especially important for voters whose assigned poll site doesn’t offer interpretation services in their preferred language (more on that in the next section).

“What I find always really encouraging is that sometimes families come vote together,” said Sandra Choi, the civic participation director at the MinKwon Center for Community Action in Flushing, Queens. Younger family members will often assist older ones who might need help, she said. “Inter-generational families will go vote together…I find that very, very touching and warming.”

Translation and interpreter services: who does what

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, certain jurisdictions are required to provide translated ballots, informational materials and interpreter services in specific languages determined every five years by the U.S. Census Bureau, based on the population of voters who belong to “language minorities”—languages spoken by American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Spanish-heritage citizens, groups that Congress has “found to have faced barriers in the political process.”

Since 2021, the city’s Board of Elections (NYCBOE) has been required to provide those services in the following languages at poll sites within each borough:

  • Manhattan – English, Spanish, Chinese
  • Bronx – Spanish
  • Brooklyn – Spanish, Chinese
  • Queens – Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Bengali
  • Staten Island – English, Spanish

But those languages are just a drop in the bucket considering the linguistic needs of city residents. In 2018, city voters approved a ballot measure to create the NYC Civic Engagement Commission (NYCCEC), which was charged, among other things, with developing a plan to provide language assistance services that supplement those provided by the NYCBOE (taking over the task from an earlier pilot program run by the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs).

The Commission now provides those additional interpreter services at dozens of poll sites across the city (you can find the latest full list here) including in languages like Arabic, Russian, Urdu and Yiddish. The Commission uses a different methodology for selecting the poll sites and languages offered than the BOE, and is required by law to complement, not duplicate, what the BOE already does.

“The Russian speaking community as an example, or Haitian Creole—these are growing communities that are not covered under the Voting Rights Act,” Sayeed said. The Commission’s interpreters are available to help “with any part of the voting process,” she added, from filling out ballots to translating forms to using scanning machines.

There have been some hiccups: In 2019, NYCBOE and the city got into a legal dispute over where the Commission could place its poll site interpreters, and as a result, their teams are required to set up shop outside polling locations rather than indoors where voters actually cast their ballots. It’s not ideal, said Wennie Chin, director of civic engagement for the New York Immigration Coalition. “I think that takes away from a little bit of legitimacy,” she said.

The language services provided by both the NYCBOE and NYCCEC are slated to change in the years ahead: A bill passed by the state legislature earlier this year will require local boards of election to expand the number of languages they provide assistance for beyond what federal law requires. Once those additional languages are determined, the NYCCEC will update its services accordingly to avoid duplication, Sayeed said.

‘Trusted messengers’

In addition to services provided at poll sites directly, the NYCCFB produces voter guides and other civic engagement materials in languages targeted to specific communities, helping to get the word out about voter registration deadlines, how to obtain absentee ballots and more.

Their current election guides, which include nonpartisan information on the candidates running, are offered in Spanish, English, Chinese and Bengali. Starting in 2023, the NYCCFB will expand those materials into additional languages including Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Polish, Russian and more, a requirement of legislation the City Council passed last year.

NYCCFB also engages with a number of community-based organizations to distribute translated information with voters in their neighborhoods—”trusted messengers,” said Patel, who can “actually get those materials into the hands of those” who need it.

Many community groups also produce their own get-out-the-vote information tailored to specific communities. APA Voice, for example, a civic engagement coalition, produces voters guides in several languages spoken by the city’s Asian American communities.

How to report a problem

Several advocacy organizations also offer language-specific help lines for voters who have questions about the electoral process, or who want to report problems at the polls, including language access issues, voter intimidation and more. Groups like LatinoJustice and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund also train and deploy non-partisan poll watchers to voting sites to keep an eye out for disenfranchisement.

Below is a list of language-specific information hotlines for voters:

English: 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683)

Spanish/English: 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682)

Asian Languages/English: 888-API-VOTE (888-274-8683)

Arabic/English844-YALLA-US (844-925-5287)

This article was written as part of the 2022 NY State Elections Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.