Two years ago, Tankow Kwong stepped into a voting booth to cast his first ballot as a naturalized U.S. citizen. He voted for president, but skipped over all the other offices.
The 71-year-old Chinatown resident said he was stymied by the list of obscure political positions that were rendered even more confusing in English than in his native Chinese.
But that shouldn’t happen again on Nov. 5.
Cook County is one of 12 counties nationwide required to produce voting materials in Chinese to help the growing number of residents like Kwong. English and Spanish are the only other languages in which ballots are printed in the county.
The requirement, announced in late July by the U.S. Department of Justice, stems from new census figures that triggered a provision in the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
If more than 5 percent of voting-age citizens in a county come from a minority group that shares a common language and has trouble understanding English—or if their total numbers exceed 10,000—local election officials have to take extra steps to make voting easier for them.
Cook County crossed the threshold with 11,646 Chinese American citizens with limited English skills, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Since the announcement, election officials and community groups have been scrambling to meet the requirement.
For election officials, it means translating voters’ pamphiets and ballots, determining which polling sites will get bilingual election judges, and figuring out how to reach potential voters who might use the new materials.
The process has, so far, proved to be nothing but tricky. Officials say they had not expected to have to help Chinese-speaking voters. Compounding the challenge was that early census data did not detail where people of Chinese descent lived.
Crucial support came from nearly a dozen Chinese community groups, which helped compile a list of 462 common Chinese surnames. The list was then compared with the county’s records of registered voters to pinpoint 479 of the city’s 2,705 precincts where at least 10 people with Chinese surnames lived. A similar method identified another 37 precincts in suburban Cook County.
On Election Day, each of the targeted precincts will have ballots, voting instructions and other materials printed in Chinese, according to Tom Leach, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
Bilingual election judges will also be stationed at voting sites in 21 precincts that appear to have a significant number of Chinese speakers, and a bilingual telephone hotline will help voters in other areas.
“Rather than blanket the entire county with new ballots, looking at the cost factor, this was a much more efficient way to do it,” Leach said.
There is no estimate yet of how much money the additional services will cost, but it’s likely the figure will be “substantial,” he said.
Critics, meanwhile, say multilingual ballots are unnecessary.
“A lot of money spent on all these translation services would be much better spent on giving immigrants English classes,” said Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, a Springfield, Va.-based nonprofit that advocates for making English the nation’s official language. “English classes create independent citizens. Government bilingualism creates very dependent people.”
Others counter that the Chinese ballots are much like requirements to help voters who are blind or have other disabilities.
“Every citizen has the same right, but some citizens may require additional help in order to be able to exercise that right,” said C.W. Chan, chairperson for the Coalition for a Better Chinatown.
“Through this assistance, we can bring more people into the process, and produce a lot more responsible, productive citizens for the country,” he added.