Over the past few months, the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office has told members of the public to turn to official sources for the most reliable guidance on how to vote — especially as the state’s election process has adapted to COVID-19.
“As you prepare to vote this year, remember that state and election officials are your trusted sources for election information,” the Secretary of State’s office has tweeted. “Be prepared and make sure you’re getting accurate information and answers to your questions.”
But in New Hampshire, the Secretary of State’s office only provides official election information in English. That’s left advocates like Eva Castillo, director of the New Hampshire Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, to pick up the slack — translating guidance or even accompanying voters who are less fluent in English to the polls.
"It falls upon our shoulders to do the work of the Secretary of State, to tell you the truth,” Castillo said. “We do have a great network of people that work in the community, but if we do not do it ourselves, then these people will not even vote."
Castillo and others on Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig's Multicultural Advisory Council wrote to Secretary of State Bill Gardner this week to request that his office publish guidance on new COVID-19 voting procedures in Spanish, Nepali, French and other languages spoken by New Hampshire's growing immigrant and refugee communities.
But most of the official guidance for voting in New Hampshire is disseminated centrally from the Secretary of State’s office. Absentee ballot requests, voter registration forms and other official paperwork is all in English.
The council also asked Gardner to permit voters to return their absentee ballots in dropboxes outside of normal city hall hours, as well as at the polls on Election Day. The state already allows local election offices to accept absentee ballots returned through a dropbox, as long as the dropbox is “staffed by a properly trained election official.” Voters can also hand-deliver their absentee ballots at the polls on Election Day under existing guidance.
“We understand that running fair elections in the midst of a pandemic is extremely challenging, and we appreciate the steps you are already taking in this regard,” the council wrote to Gardner. “We feel certain that our recommendations will make sure the upcoming elections are fair to all and encourage citizens to exercise their right to vote.”
The Secretary of State's office did not respond to NHPR’s request for comment on the concerns raised in the letter as of Friday afternoon. In the past, however, state election officials have pointed to federal benchmarks that mandate when states have to offer voting materials in languages other than English.
“When a community reaches a certain threshold in terms of population of voters that don’t speak English or have English as a second language, the state is responsible for printing ballots for those communities,” Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan told NHPR in 2018. At the time, Scanlan said his office was not aware of any problems related to the lack of voting materials in other languages.
But Castillo said state officials aren’t being proactive enough on this issue, and language barriers are in fact an issue for many new citizens in New Hampshire. She said the state should reach out to advocates like her to ensure voters from lots of different backgrounds have the support they need to participate in New Hampshire's elections and to find the best way to engage with voters beyond posting translated material on a government website.
“Your average person here, naturalized citizen, has no clue who the Secretary of State is,” she said.