Community leaders in Manchester are hoping to recruit more bilingual people to work at the polls in the upcoming election.
This comes after the city’s Multicultural Advisory Council asked the state to publish voting instructions in Spanish, Nepali, French and other languages spoken by New Hampshire's growing immigrant and refugee communities.
The council’s appeal for more action from the Secretary of State’s office is part of an effort to ensure voting access for naturalized citizens who might run into hurdles navigating New Hampshire’s election process.
(NHPR wants to hear from you: Share your thoughts and questions on voting in New Hampshire with us at email@example.com. Your feedback will help us better cover this election from a variety of perspectives.)
To become a United States citizen, you have to demonstrate basic English proficiency. But many of the forms used in New Hampshire's voting process can prove challenging even for native speakers, according to council member Sue Corby.
“The directions this year for absentee balloting are kind of complicated,” said Corby, who has spent years helping immigrants learn English and navigate the citizenship process. “You know, you really have to have a pretty high level of reading in English.”
In a letter responding to the council’s request, Secretary of State Bill Gardner said his office “will be glad to assist, to the extent practical, anyone who wishes to create educational materials for voters who may have English as a second language” but also noted this isn't required by law.
“The New Hampshire legislature has neither authorized, required, or funded, preparation of bilingual voting materials nor set standards for when public resources should be used for this purpose,” Gardner wrote.
Gardner suggested this might be a job for the Manchester City Clerk, but noted that many local clerks are overwhelmed with other duties, due to COVID-19.
While Corby said she understands the Secretary of State’s office might not be mandated to offer more voting materials in other languages, she said she’s disappointed they haven’t been more proactive in doing so.
“It's a matter of priorities, I guess,” she said.
Corby and others in Manchester plan to continue working on the issue at a local level, but she said it would carry more weight to have official voting materials prepared in other languages by the Secretary of State.
Aside from offering voting materials in languages other than English, Gardner also encouraged the council to consider recruiting more bilingual voters to help out at the polls. Many communities, not just Manchester, are in need of more volunteer pollworkers for the November election.
Several members of the Multicultural Advisory Council in Manchester say that kind of pollworker recruitment is now going to be a priority. They plan to meet with local election officials soon to find out where more volunteers are needed and how they can help fill in the gaps.
Arnold Mikolo, who chairs the Multicultural Advisory Council, said having more pollworkers from the city’s immigrant communities would do more than bridge language barriers. It would also send an important message to new citizens about their role in democracy: "This is also my process."
"It's not just someone else's to be part of the process, and my job is just to go and cast a vote," Mikolo said. "It's also saying I could fully participate in the civic life, or the civic process."
November's vote will be an important milestone for Mikolo, too: After coming to New Hampshire eight years ago from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he'll cast his first ballot in a presidential election as an American citizen.