For the first time in Minnesota’s history, a local jurisdiction must train and provide multilingual election judges.
Ramsey County is the first state jurisdiction required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 recruit and train interpreting judges who speak, in this case, Hmong. The 2020 U.S. Census showed that the county’s Hmong population makes up over 5% of county residents of voting age. Federal law requires communities that meet this 5% threshold to provide language services to voters.
According to the US Census, more than 11% of Ramsey County residents speak an Asian and Pacific Islander language. Hmong is the second most common language in the county, which has a total population of over 552,352.
Interpretation services have been provided at polling places across the state, including Ramsey County, for over 100 years. But this year, Ramsey County is embarking on a new effort to train interpretive judges. While the county is only required by law to train Hmong interpreter judges, it also recruits and trains judges who speak several other languages.
Judges play a wide range of roles on Election Day: they greet voters as they enter polling stations, deliver ballots to voters, provide voting instructions, and assist voters at the polling station. Other judges register voters and process documents at polling stations. Interpreting judges may be assigned to either of these responsibilities.
In the past, the county employed election judges who spoke multiple languages, but did not provide them with formal training.
“Having someone help you through the voting process will let you know your vote counts,” Ramsey County Electoral Officer David Triplett said. “We want you here and we’re going to make sure you can successfully participate in this election.”
No word for “vote”
Chou Moua is a skilled interpreter, but when helping Hmong elders participate in elections, he cannot easily translate the word “vote”. It does not exist in the Hmong language.
“Usually we ‘hmongify’ certain English words or explain them,” Moua said. “For example, we don’t say ‘vote’, we say ‘pov npav’, which literally means ‘push your ticket’. ”
Now, Moua is developing Ramsey County’s training program for Hmong interpreter judges.
“We try to make sure they can communicate clearly,” Moua said. “My model is to translate meaning for meaning, not word for word.”
The Ramsey County Elections Office is currently recruiting interpreting judges for the elections, so they will be ready before the primary elections on August 9 and the general elections on November 8. The county seeks Hmong-speaking candidates, but also offers interpreting training to bilingual candidates who speak Spanish, Somali, Oromo and Karen. The county also encourages anyone who speaks other languages to apply.
The county hopes to train a total of 200 performing judges this year, Triplett said. In St. Paul, 64 out of 95 constituencies needed a Hmong interpreter during last year’s elections.
Any U.S. citizen of voting age can be an election judge. Students who are at least 16 years old can also serve. Judges are paid for a 15-hour shift on Election Day and a training session that lasts two to three hours. Ramsey County Election Interpreter Judges will receive an additional paid training session.
Interpretation services in 1896
Language needs have evolved, but Secretary of State Steve Simon said Minnesota has provided interpretation and translation services at polling places since 1896.
“The languages back then were Swedish, Norwegian and German,” Simon said. “Now none of these languages are on the list. Now it’s Somali, Spanish, Hmong and others.
Every 10 years, the US Census notifies counties of the most spoken languages in their jurisdiction, alerting them to interpretation and translation needs. Most counties in the state provide some sort of interpretation or translation services at polling places, even if they don’t meet the Voting Rights Act threshold, Simon said.
“As the state becomes more diverse in areas like Rochester, Mankato, Worthington, Wilmar, St. Cloud, there’s a lot more need,” Simon said. “The appreciation, the relief that people feel, you can feel it.”
Ramsey County expands language services
Ramsey County provides information online and through election and early voting brochures in Hmong, Somali, Spanish and Oromo. They also provide a package of translated documents at some polling stations. In addition to the multilingual judges present in the polling stations, the judges can also assist voters by putting them in touch with interpreters available on a telephone line.
The county first appoints election judges who have registered through political parties. It also recruits judges. Triplett said the county is working with Moua and the Hmong Outreach Network to find potential judges who can speak Hmong.
“The best way to recruit election judges is by word of mouth from friends,” Triplett said. “But that doesn’t always get us to the number of people we need.”
The county is also advertising the position through social media and local news outlets. Triplett works closely with high schools to recruit student judges.
The salaries of electoral judges range from $16 to $20 per hour, depending on the type of judge. Judges work from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. with meal times. They are also paid for a two-hour training session before election day. It is not known how long the interpretation training session will last, as the program is under development.
Western metropolitan cities alone
In neighboring Hennepin County, each town provides its own interpretation and translation services. According to Minneapolis Elections Administrator Jeff Narabrook, the city uses multilingual election judges, but it does not offer formal training in interpreting. Election judges can call an interpreter via a telephone line if necessary.
“Ramsey County is the first jurisdiction to be subject to the Voting Rights Act requirement,” he said. “It is possible that Hennepin County or the city of Minneapolis will fall under this one day. I always wanted there to be more we could do to support our performers.
Some polling places in Minneapolis are receiving materials translated into other languages. For example, the Brian Coyle Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which has a large number of Somali voters, offers voting directions in Somali.
Minneapolis also provides pre-written scripts for multilingual election judges so they can explain nuanced elements of elections, like ranked voting.
Narabrook said interpreters provide a better service than translated documents because some voters cannot read documents.
Narabrook said the city has not considered providing training for its interpreter judges due to budget concerns.
Election judges earn $17.15 per hour and work 16 hours from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Judges also have the option of working an eight-hour half-day. Minneapolis election judges are paid for a three-hour training session before Election Day.
Ramsey County officials first approached Moua, who runs a consulting firm that works closely with the Hmong Outreach Network, to develop training for election judges in December.
“Especially in the Hmong community, we come from an environment where we fled war. There is distrust of the government,” Moua said. “We are careful not to re-traumatize people, but to be there to help them.”
Moua plans to divide the training session into chapters with quizzes. Topics will likely include privacy practices, how to help voters while remaining neutral, and conflict resolution.
Simon said at an April 22 election conference, state officials will encourage county and municipal election administrators to hire more bilingual election judges and improve translated materials.
“We’re getting backlash from people saying, ‘Why do you need voting materials in a language other than English? After all, you can only vote if you are a citizen. You cannot become a citizen in most cases unless you pass an English proficiency test,” Simon said.
Interpretation and translation improve access to voting, and the need for this extends beyond the Twin Cities, he said.
Moua added that he has noticed a growing need for interpretation into other Asian and Pacific Island languages, such as Nepali, Karen and Karenni, and Chuukese, a Micronesian language spoken by more than half of the population of the city of Milan in Chippewa County.
“There is a huge gap among those who need help,” Moua said.
Despite the historical development in Ramsey County, Moua wonders: does a Somali voter in Wilmar or a Hmong voter in Walnut Grove vote?