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Board Of Elections Is Suing New York City To Block Translators From Poll Sites

Dashed Arrow Jenn Hsu / Gothamist / WNYC

With a citywide special election just days away, the New York City Board of Elections is suing the city to prevent language translators hired by the de Blasio administration from entering poll sites to assist voters.

Under federal law, the Board is required to provide translation services for voters in Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Bengali. But de Blasio administration officials say that doesn’t go far enough. The city hired additional translators for Russian, Haitian Creole, Yiddish and Polish speakers at 48 poll sites in Brooklyn and Queens, but the Board argues these additional translators must remain more than 100 feet away from poll site entrances because these individuals were not trained or vetted by the agency.

“What the Board of Elections is saying is, ‘No, the translators have to stay outside in the cold and the only way they can help people is if they are not allowed inside the doors of the polling place,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said during his weekly appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday. “That is the ultimate Catch-22, that means the Board is not allowing real translation services,” he added.

This is the latest skirmish in the ongoing battle between the Board and City Hall over language access at the polls.

For last November’s election, the City Council and Mayor’s office worked together to fund translators at 101 poll sites citywide. At that time, the translators were required to stay more than 100 feet outside the poll sites. Both then and now, the city contracted with Langalo Translations, a city-certified minority or women-owned business, to provide the additional services.

Earlier this week, the Board warned the city that it would file for a temporary restraining order preventing any translators not certified by the Board from entering the poll sites. The Board is expected to make good on that threat Friday afternoon filing in State Supreme Court.

The Board’s ten commissioners are appointed by the party leaders in each borough, one Democrat and one Republican from each borough. In an added twist, since the Board is usually represented by the City Law Department when it goes to court, the Board needed to hire outside counsel to represent it.

“Voting should be easy for all New Yorkers—no matter what language you speak. It is our position that providing interpreter services within polling sites for voters requesting such assistance is lawful. If sued, we are prepared to defend the provision of these services,” said Kimberly Joyce, a Law Department spokesperson.

The Board of Elections spokeswoman Valerie Vasquez-Diaz declined to provide additional comment. She directed inquiries to their outside counsel Lawrence Mandelker of Eiseman Levine Lehrhaupt & Kakoyiannis, P.C.

Mandelker said the city cannot force the Board to station just anyone inside a poll site. He also raised concerns about the training and vetting process the city used to hire the additional translators. “We don’t know how they were recruited. Were they given to you by activist communities that support one type of candidate?” he said.

If a voter approaches a poll site, needs language assistance and sees one of the city’s translators 100 feet outside the poll site, by law the person is allowed to bring that translator inside to help, Mandelker stressed.

“If we allow these people to be stationed [inside the poll site], what about the next group, who speaks other languages?” Mandelker added, describing the situation as a “slippery slope.” He said the Board was seeking a court hearing on Monday.

“This is a rogue agency,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, which has repeatedly sued the City Board of Elections on behalf of voters to improve the agency’s operations.

“It’s difficult for me to imagine a bigger waste of public resources and time than for the New York City Board of Elections to sue New York City to try and prevent the city from helping voters on Election Day,” Lerner told WNYC/Gothamist on Friday. She plans to visit various poll sites on Tuesday to check in on issues encountered by voters.

Mark Treyger, a City Councilman from Brooklyn who represents the neighborhoods of Bensonhurst, Coney Island, Gravesend, and Sea Gate introduced legislation last year which would add translation services for New Yorkers who speak Arabic, Russian, Haitian Creole, Urdu, French, and Polish.

As a native Russian-speaker himself, Treyger argued that the Board is disenfranchising voters who don’t speak English as their first language. “This is a blatant effort to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers,” Treyger said. “There’s no way to frame it other than that.”

Brigid Bergin is the City Hall and politics reporter for WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @brigidbergin.

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