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Supply exceeded demand at the Fifth Ward polling place located inside the Chinese Christian Church and Center’s building on 10th and Spring Streets.
By noon Tuesday, only 38 people had cast a ballot in the primary election, most of them Chinese. Those who did vote had four bilingual poll workers, who spoke both Cantonese and Mandarin, available to them. A stack of Metro Chinese Weekly newspapers, which featured a voter guide, was in front of the building.
But that experience could be the exception to the rule. In the past, there have been legal complaints about access to the polls by voters who do not speak English, especially if their language is not Spanish.
The City of Philadelphia is required by the Voting Rights Act to provide Spanish language assistance to voters.
It also is supposed to provide language cards and cell phones so that non-English voters have access to an interpreter service.
Last month, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a complaint against the City Board of Commissioners over inadequate language access at the polls. AALDEF received a certificate from the city to monitor the primary election on Tuesday.
The organization has monitored elections in the past. During the 2013 primary election, AALDEF found common issues at the polls to be missing language line cards and cell phones, and a lack of Asian language interpreters.
About 84,000 immigrants in Philadelphia are eligible to vote, according to Census data. A total of 331 interpreters were assigned to work at the polls during Tuesday’s primary election.
According to Commissioner Al Schmidt, 318 of the 331 interpreters speak Spanish. In total, there are 1,683 voting divisions in Philadelphia. Schmidt said his office had not received any complaints this Election Day about language access.
Ellen Kaplan, vice president and policy director of the Committee of Seventy, the citizen watchdog organization, said their election protection hotline hadn’t received complaints either.
Tim Dowling, an official in the Office of the Philadelphia Commissioners, said the city does make accommodations for voters who do not speak English or Spanish— provided that someone from the community or a community organization comes forward and identifies the need and provides a list of potential interpreters.
“We’re happy to help, but you cannot put 100 percent of the onus on us or other community based organizations,” said Jerry Vattamala, staff attorney for AALDEF.
John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, agrees. His group has stepped forward and recruited interpreters to improve access.
“I think it’s the responsibility [of the City Commissioners] to ensure that people who want to register to vote and people who want to vote have the access and the assistance that they need to go vote,” Chin said. “But, unfortunately that’s not always the case. So that’s why in years past we’ve actually tried to recruit volunteers to help facilitate that process.”