By Martha Bezzat
To serve Malden’s growing number of non-native English speakers, the city administration is implementing new technology that will impact voting and language access for voters this November for the midterm state and federal elections.
A new campaign called “I Speak” was initiated during the Sept. 6 primary election and was an opportunity to do a trial run of new Pocketalk devices that support voters speaking other language backgrounds to access, read, and understand the ballots. Poll workers were trained prior to the election and were specifically trained to recognize when voters may be having difficulty with language accessibility and to practice cultural sensitivity.
The process works like this: 1) voters can point to a picture on language recognition cards to indicate what language they speak, 2) then a poll worker plugs that language into the Pocketalk device, which contains 72 languages, and 3) then they will be able to have a conversation with the poll worker, in English with translation back and forth, about their needs or questions.
Susan Ecker, a Malden resident and volunteer at the polls on Sept. 6, describes her experience. “Our team at the Beebe School, which supported Ward 3 Precinct 2, had access to a Pocketalk device, and there was signage on the walls in various languages, and we also had a translator to assist Chinese voters.”
Elena Martinez, the new Language Access Coordinator for the City of Malden said, “It’s all about access and people knowing that they can speak up any time. They have a voice.” She adds that the city has also been doing its best to get the word out about a voter’s right to bring someone with them into the voting booth if help is needed, under Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act.
Asked about the impact of not having language access during past elections, Martinez said, “It meant no clear instructions of what is, and is not, allowed during this process, where to go, how to fill out the ballot, and where you can ask voting questions.”
Martinez shared the city’s strategy for access. “The Language Access Office was created to develop and implement a working strategy to eliminate language barriers across the city, and I’m working directly with all city departments, learning and understanding their unique community offerings and providing them with the necessary language support, which varies from devices to interpreters, in order to increase meaningful access to services, opportunities and community participation.”
According to Martinez, the city purchased 40 Pocketalk devices, with 27 being distributed to polling stations – one per station – and the remaining 13 “being available for general daily use by departments and staff working directly with constituents.”
Martinez was out and about in the city during the primary election and found: “During the day, our voting team visited a few polling sites to check-in and I did a couple of device demonstrations, all with great reception from poll volunteers.” According to Ecker, “We were trained and very prepared to assist non-English speakers to vote, but few needed our help during my shift.”
There will also be at least one bilingual poll worker at all locations, as well as the new devices. As a final backup when needed, paid translators will be on call for poll workers at City Hall on Election Day.
City Clerk Greg Lucey explained, “We have hired a company for the City Clerk’s office to be stationed on election days that could take calls in many different languages from the polling locations.” He said his office already has staff available that cover six different languages. “Our goal every election is to get as many bilingual poll workers as possible, and in the Primary Election we had 17 of them – that is the most we have ever had – and we are hoping to build on that number for the Nov. 8 election.”
Lucey added, “Of the 17 bilingual poll workers, 14 of them spoke Cantonese, Mandarin, or both.” The ballot has also been translated into Chinese — not for the first time — due to Malden’s established Chinese-speaking population.”
Removing barriers at the polls has been a goal of GMAACC, the Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition, which, along with other groups, alerted the city about language barriers at the polls. Cooperation and collaboration with these groups has made Malden stand out in the region.
Martinez’s newly created position will also support language accessibility beyond the polls. “Other departments, such as the Malden Public Schools and the Malden Public Library, purchased Pocketalks for daily use,” she said. Seven translators were also provided for the recent Roosevelt Park hearing at City Hall.
Martinez has a clear passion for reaching those who need language access. “From the start I’ve been sharing all my found resources and research across departments with the vision of all moving forward and reducing language barriers across the city,” she said.
As for costs and challenges, Martinez said, “Language access comes with a cost that can very quickly add up if not done with a little creativity and planning. The Pocketalk is a one-time payment, and it is good for quick communication assessments; you have instant communication with the person and are able to answer or understand if you need to call an interpreter.”
But she cautioned, “I’m learning that each offering has to have its own set of usage guidelines to make them effective tools.”
Asked if she has advice for voters who need language access at the Nov. 8 election, Ecker offers this: “Make a voting plan ahead of time, be sure to leave plenty of extra time to vote, just in case any issues do arise, and it couldn’t hurt to call or email Malden City Hall to receive details about access to translators or if a Pocketalk device will be available at your polling location.”
The Language Access Office will eventually have its own page on the City’s website where people can find the services and how to request them, and find out about languages spoken in Malden, and other issues related to language and culture.