Election Language Barrier for Russian Speakers in New York City

by Rebekah Mintzer

Governor Cuomo’s quiet veto means ballots and instructions in Tuesday’s election won’t be translated into Russian – again.

On Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn the Russian language can be heard and seen almost everywhere. Credit: REBEKAH MINTZER

On November 6, New Yorkers from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union will go to the polls throughout the five boroughs to exercise their right to vote as citizens of their adopted nation. They will be greeted by signage and voting materials translated into Chinese, Korean, and Spanish. But their own language will be, for the most part, absent – even though the number of New Yorkers who speak Russian at home is more than twice the number of those who speak Korean, according to U.S. Census data.

The lack of translation is an ongoing issue in a city where nearly 200,000 people over the age of five speak Russian at home. Twice, the state legislature has voted to mandate Russian versions of voting materials in New York City. The first time, in 2009, a translation law was enacted but never implemented, due to lack of funding. This year, a new law passed by the legislature was quietly vetoed by Governor Cuomo.

Cuomo also cited money as the reason. The city Board of Elections estimated the cost of translating materials into Russian at $6 million a year. “In this difficult fiscal climate, this cost is simply too high to impose at this time,” Cuomo said in his veto message released in October.

“Obviously this is a disappointment, but it’s important to remember that the motivation behind the bill–the need to make voting fully accessible to Russian-speaking New Yorkers–remains as strong and urgent as ever,” New York State Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, one of the bill’s strongest supporters, said in a press release following Cuomo’s veto.

According to estimates from the 2011 American Community Survey, an annual survey run by the U.S. Census Bureau, 71,105 Russian speakers living in New York speak English “very well,” while 124,003 speak it “less than very well.” In comparison, in the city there are 85,379 speakers of Korean, a language covered by the board, which translates voting materials into Korean, and 48,764 of them communicate in English “less than very well.”

Many of Brighton Beach’s Russian speaking voters go to the Shorefront YM-YWHA to cast their ballots on election day. Credit: REBEKAH MINTZER

The city board of elections is in the process of translating ballots and other materials for Bengali-speaking New Yorkers this year, after being compelled to do so by the federal Voting Rights Act. That federal law mandates translation help for sizable minority populations with a history of discrimination — including Asians and Hispanics. It does not require translations for voters from other geographic regions, such as Africa, the Middle East and Europe — even if there are substantial numbers of voters from those countries with limited English proficiency. Some discrepancies result; the most recent available American Community Survey statistics on Bengali speakers in New York, for example, show that there are just over 30,000 Bengali speakers with limited English proficiency in the city, compared with more than 120,000 Russian speakers.

The city board of elections downplays the lack of Russian-language materials. Valerie Vazquez, spokesperson for the board, pointed out that the board offers voter registration instruction forms and a voter registration handbook translated into Russian, and that the board’s website provides a Google translation application for other texts.

But those online translations don’t do enough to enhance the voting rights of Russian-speaking New Yorkers, said Oswalt Heymann, chief of staff to Cymbrowitz, who represents Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach and other heavily Russian areas of Brooklyn. In many parts of Cymbrowitz’s district it’s still more common to hear Russian spoken on the streets than English.

“This is just one tool that will make it easier for so many more Americans to vote,” said Heymann. But the translations need to be on the scene, where people cast their votes, he said – not just online. “The important things are the instructions at the polls and the ballot itself.”

At polling stations on November 6, there will be no ballot and instruction translations, and no Russian interpreters on hand to help those struggling with the language – unless non-government sources provide them, according to Vasquez.

“We make it clear to all communities that our information is in no way copyrighted,” said Vasquez. “We encourage them to use the information that we have, to translate it into their respective languages, and help us spread the word to educate New Yorkers throughout all five boroughs on the voting process,” she said.

Vasquez added that although the board has no Russian interpreters at polling sites, voters are allowed to bring whomever they want with them to the polls in order to provide translation — except for their workplace boss or a union representative.

Many south Brooklyn residents originally from Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union said they and their neighbors are eager to cast ballots – but could be hampered by the lack of Russian translations.

“Of course they have problems with voting because most of them are older people,” said Mara Schendler of Brighton Beach, who is originally from St. Petersburg, Russia.

“We have translators when we go to vote,” said Sima Burt, who immigrated from Ukraine 23 years ago and lives in Coney Island. “But not enough,” she said.

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