Councilmember Mark Treyger recalls the first time he realized with a jolt that the city was falling far short in its goal of helping non-English speaking U.S. citizens in polling places on Election Day.
Several years ago, Treyger was working as an aide to Assemblymember William Colton, a Democrat representing Gravesend and Bensonhurst, and was serving as a troubleshooter at polling sites when he was called to P.S. 177 in Bensonhurst to referee a dispute between a poll worker and a supervisor.
The poll worker was seeking to assist a Russian-speaking voter when the supervisor threatened to have him arrested on the grounds that he was electioneering, according to Treyger.
“He wasn’t electioneering. He spoke Russian and he was just trying to help a Russian-speaking senior citizen figure out if she was in the right polling place. He wasn’t trying to tell anyone who to vote for,” Treyger told this newspaper on Tuesday.
No one else in the polling site spoke Russian, Treyger said.
The poll worker wasn’t arrested but the incident stayed with Treyger, a Democrat representing Bath Beach, Bensonhurst, Coney Island, Gravesend and Sea Gate.
Treyger and his colleague, Councilmember Justin Brannan, are both working on separate pieces of legislation to increase the number of interpreters permitted at polling sites and both men are advocating for an increase in the number of foreign languages the New York City Board of Elections recognizes as being eligible for interpretive services.
Currently, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Bengali qualify under Board of Elections regulations.
Treyger said he came to the conclusion years ago that the city should have more interpreters at polling sites on Election Day and should add the number of languages in which voters can receive assistance for such things as finding the correct election district.
Treyger, who was elected to his Council seat in 2013, approached the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs a few years ago with the idea of placing Russian-speaking and Haitian-Creole interpreters in polling places under a pilot program. The city allocated $300,000 for the program this year.
Treyger’s bill would allow the Voter Assistance Advisory Board, a panel that operates under the auspices of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, to train and dispatch interpreters who speak the 10 most common foreign languages spoken in New York City (Russian, Haitian Creole, Arabic, Urdu, French, Polish, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Bengali) to polling sites around the city.
Brannan’s bill would require the city to have Arabic-speaking interpreters on site at polling places where 50 or more voting eligible residents with limited English proficiency vote.
Brannan, a Democrat representing Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and parts of Bensonhurst, said he was alarmed to learn that on Election Day earlier this month, there was only one polling site that offered Arabic interpretation services and the site was not located in his Council district, which is home to a large population of Arab-Americans.
“This bill is a home run for our community. Our democracy works best when we make it easy for everyone to vote,” Brannan said in a statement. “This is about opening the political process to all, and about making sure all of our voices are heard.”
In addition to pushing for more interpreters, Treyger said he wants the interpreters to be permitted to work inside the polling sites and not be required to stay 100 feet away from the entrances of polling places, the distance required under the law to prevent electioneering.
“We have to break down as many barriers as possible. In New York City. Over 40 percent of the residents are foreign-born. In Brooklyn, over half of the residents are foreign-born. New York City has an abysmal record of voter turnout. And this could be a big reason why. If someone who doesn’t speak English shows up at a polling site and can’t even get their question answered as to whether they’re in the right place, they’re going to turn around and go home. We lose thousands of votes each year. We should stop putting obstacles in people’s way,” Treyger told this newspaper.