CALDWELL — Idahoans who don't speak English as their first language may run into barriers when trying to vote.
For example, Canyon County didn't allow bilingual poll workers to translate for voters - but now, they're changing that.
Canyon County training documents from a previous administration said poll workers couldn't help translate for voters. But that was reversed Thursday after Idaho Press reporter Nicole Foy questioned the county about their policy; the Idaho Secretary of State's Office followed up and cleared the air surrounding what's allowed.
“What goes through my mind is conversations I’ve been having with folks in Canyon County who do tell me they'd like to have stuff in Spanish,” Conservation Voters for Idaho voting rights associate Antonio Hernandez said. “They don’t have bilingual materials, they don’t have translators.”
Hernandez says Spanish-speakers want access in their preferred language at the polls.
“Some of this language that’s in the ballot - specifically around propositions - is very high-level stuff. And, I mean, even for folks who do speak English, this is a challenge. “And so this is just something that is a bigger challenge to somebody who doesn't speak the language,” Hernandez said. “When somebody comes into a polling location they want to feel welcome, they want to feel comfortable, that they are allowed to vote. And just having somebody that can speak to them in their preferred language can do a lot to encourage folks to exercise their right to vote.
Hernandez says members of the Latino community don't always feel they can exercise that right. He knows firsthand.
“I grew up in Nampa and my door was never knocked when it came to get out the vote. And I can say that about my parent, my family, my entire street honestly. And I think that's in large part because the Spanish-speaking community is kind of an afterthought when it comes to voting,” he added.
Spanish speakers are allowed to bring family or friends to help them translate. They can also use their phone in the voting booth.
There's no state law barring bilingual poll workers from interpreting, but until this week - when it was brought to their attention - Canyon County didn't allow it. Census data shows nearly 18 percent of people in Canyon County speak a language other than English at home.
Canyon County is a bit hesitant to provide this type of assistance, saying they have a duty to administer fair and impartial elections and they don't want to give the impression that their poll workers are influencing voters in any way.
Ada County, too, is apprehensive about advising poll workers to interpret in Spanish.
“I'd be a little apprehensive because I don't know their level of proficiency,” Ada County Clerk Chris Rich told KTVB. “I’d be hesitant to say, carte blanche, go ahead and assist people. I think with the best of intentions somebody could do something - but we haven’t trained them, would they be influencing them on the ballot, would they truly be communicating? I just don't know.”
Neither Ada nor Canyon counties are legally required to provide language assistance or voting materials in another language. In fact, the Secretary of State's Office says Lincoln County is the only county that meets a certain threshold and is federally required to do so as set out in the Language Minority Provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
According to the Department of Justice, the provisions require when a covered state or political subdivision provides registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance or other materials relating to elections – including ballots – it must provide them in the language of the applicable minority group.
A jurisdiction is covered when the number of U.S. citizens of voting age is a single language group of more than 10,000; is more than five percent of all voting-age citizens; on a Native American reservation exceeds five percent of all reservation residents, or the illiteracy rate of the group is higher than the national rate.
“We've never had this question raised before,” Rich said. “We've never even discussed this subject. So the ability to disseminate this type of information and get it out and say ‘do this’, ‘don't do that’ gets to be a logistical challenge of how do you do that.”
“Ada County, we're not anywhere near any of those levels of participation by a minority,” Rich added.
But Canyon County is inching up there.
Conservation Voters for Idaho reaches out and gives election information in Spanish to our rapidly growing Hispanic population, but says elections officials need to step up.
“We do believe that this is something the state should be providing,” Hernandez added.
Both Ada and Canyon counties tell KTVB this issue hasn't been raised before. Once Canyon County officials learned they had the wrong information, they immediately started telling poll workers they can assist voters in Spanish if they're able to.
Also of note: the Canyon County website, including their elections page, is available in Spanish.
Below is the full statement from Canyon County spokesman Joe Decker:
We accommodate every eligible voter in every way possible under the confines of state code. In addition, our entire county website, including our Elections page, is available in Spanish.
The training materials that Clerk Yamamoto and our elections staff inherited from a prior administration mentioned that poll workers could not assist voters with translation services or act as interpreters. However, yesterday we were informed by the Secretary of State’s Office that poll workers are not prohibited from assisting voters in Spanish. After learning this, we immediately reached out to our chief judges and poll workers to let them know that they can assist voters in Spanish if they have the ability to. That said, we only have a handful of poll workers who have the ability to assist voters in Spanish. We would still encourage voters who speak Spanish to bring someone who can provide translation services for them.
I think it’s important to note that Canyon County has no legal requirement to offer Spanish-language assistance or voting materials to voters. It’s also important to note that this is something that was never an issue or even brought to our attention before yesterday. Once we learned we had incorrect information, we addressed it immediately and are moving forward appropriately.