kings theater haitian creole
Voters walk out of the Kings Theatre, an early voting site that offered Haitian Creole translation services in October 2020. Photo by Garry Pierre-Pierre

Among all voting-age citizens with limited English-language proficiency in New York City, more than 24,000 are Haitian Creole speakers. And the city’s Civic Engagement Commission (CEC) is looking for translators to help Haitians at the polls in the upcoming elections. 

Gangandeep Kaur, a language access advisor for the CEC, which provides poll site interpretation for elections, said the city has a pool of interpreters from the November elections, but the city needs more.

“We are always looking for interpreters in Haitian Creole,” Kaur said.  

Currently, the Board of Elections (BOE) provides language assistance to voters in Spanish in all boroughs and in Cantonese and Mandarin in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) launched a pilot program to further expand interpretation for other common languages in 2017. CEC implemented the program last year, according to a document about the program’s methodology, and the need for Haitian Creole became even more clear. 

“Haitian Creole is one of the languages that we focused on initially with the pilot,” said MOIA Commissioner Bitta Mostofi. “[Haitians are] one of the largest populations of naturalized citizens who have limited English proficiency that [didn’t] receive interpretation services at the poll site.” 

A registered voter may speak English fluently, but if they lack civic education, they may still need the assistance in their own language to understand what’s presented on the ballot, said Monalisa Ferrari, a board member of the Haitian American Voter Empowerment Coalition, a political advocacy group. Interpretation can help voters feel more at ease at a poll site and can bring non-voters into the political process. 

“It’s the level of comfort that they can enjoy knowing they can find someone that speaks their language that can help them,” said Ferrari. “[Voters] have a tendency to go back and encourage those who were intimidated to come out to vote.” 

About 24,300 Haitian Creole-speaking citizens of voting age have limited English proficiency (abbreviated as CVALEP) according to data from the Census Bureau. Among the 11 languages spoken by about 208,000 New Yorkers in the CEC program, Haitian Creole had the second-highest number of speakers. 

The citywide population claiming Haitian ancestry, which includes citizens younger than 18 and non-citizens of all ages residing in the city, numbers more than 121,000, per Census data.

Having translators at the polls is “critical” to ensure people understand the ranked-choice voting ballot in this year’s elections, said Marc Francois, policy director for the nonprofit Haitian American Caucus (HAC). The organization has partnered with CEC to share informational materials explaining the ballot in Haitian Creole, to help voters understand this brand new voting process. 

“We believe that, as 2020 showed us, nothing is impossible through voter turnout, and incorporating as many people as possible into the political process,” Francois said. “We do have a very significant community of people who either speak Creole predominantly or as their first language.” 

Interpretation offered at six sites, room for growth

Of the 52 poll sites citywide where the CEC offered translation during the November 2020 general election, six sites offered assistance in Haitian Creole. 

The CEC list of the 52 language-accessible poll sites are likely to remain the same for the June 22 primary and Nov. 2 general election, but the locations are subject to change, Kaur said. On election days, the CEC will have at least two interpreters per language at each poll site. Interpreters are paid an hourly wage and must attend a training session, she said. 

Across all polling sites, New Yorkers have the right to receive assistance, including interpretation, from family and friends who accompany them. The only caveat is that the helper cannot be an employer or union representative. At the poll sites offering interpretation, CEC will post flyers instructing voters on how to request the service, the commission’s staff confirmed. 

Last Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020, the CEC offered Haitian Creole translation at one poll site in Queens Village, two in Canarsie and three in Flatbush. Expanding poll site translation can only help democracy, Francois said. 

“We believe that the process is going to be best served by including as many eligible voters as humanly possible,” said Francois. “And only when that representation is there, is policy going to reflect people.”

For the CEC’s program, the number of poll sites receiving services in a given language depends on the language’s share of the CVALEP population. Poll site locations serving each language are chosen based on the census tracts where the largest concentrations of CVALEP voters reside, according to the CEC

But the overall number of poll sites, along with languages served, could grow with more funding. CEC allocated $1 million from its internal budget to the program for the current fiscal year, which ends July 1, Kaur said. Going forward, the program could expand, from the 52 election day poll sites and 25 early voting sites being served with language interpretation, she said. 

“We are advocating for a higher allocation to expand the program,” Kaur said. “If additional resources are added to the program we may be able to operate at a higher scale.”

To become a poll site interpreter, contact the CEC at info@civicengagement.nyc.gov for the requirements. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and...

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