Usjid Hameed: Multilingual Poll Workers Benefit New Americans

This op-ed was published in The Columbus Dispatch on August 21, 2018. 

My grandmother voted for the first time in 2016. While it was a powerful and important moment, she would not have been able to cast her ballot if my father had not been there to provide language assistance for her. My grandmother, like countless other American citizens, is not proficient in English and must face this barrier when trying to vote.

For even the savviest voter, Ohio’s election rules, various ballot initiatives and tax levies can feel overwhelming. For those who are limited in English proficiency, it is intimidating enough to keep them from exercising their right to vote.

My grandmother was born in the city of Lahore in British India in 1945, a city which would later become part of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan upon its creation in 1947. My grandmother intimately understands what it’s like to live in a place where women’s rights, social mobility and the rule of law are nearly nonexistent and, because of this, also understands the true value of the freedoms that many Americans take for granted. Many other citizens have a story very similar to hers. These unique voices must be uplifted and heard, especially on Election Day, and that begins with language assistance.

My grandmother’s story is a testament to the value language interpretation can have for voters. She was fortunate to have a family member who could interpret for her, but many other citizens do not have this option. Unfortunately, many boards of elections do not have robust language-assistance programs, making it difficult for new American voters to cast their ballot. As a result, many citizens’ voices are not heard come election time.

That’s why, as the public affairs coordinator with CAIR-Columbus and a Puffin Democracy fellow with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, I, with the help of various other community organizations, have launched a new initiative to recruit multilingual poll workers, starting in central Ohio.

This initiative, which has been approved by the Franklin County Board of Elections, focuses on positioning multilingual poll workers at designated polling locations on Election Day to provide language assistance to non-English proficient voters. Each polling location was determined through census data and cooperation with local social-service organizations.

This year, we hope to break down the language barrier to the ballot box for many voters. We plan to assess the project’s effectiveness, how it may be improved and expand the effort to other communities with non-English-proficient voters.

Ample evidence illustrates that language assistance leads to increased engagement from communities with limited English proficiency. A 2006 report by the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act stated that according to the executive assistant with the Tohono O’Oodham Nation, “unprecedented turnout” from tribal members resulted in the 2002 and 2004 elections in Pima County, Arizona, following the recruitment of tribal poll workers.

In addition, the report stated that according to the staff attorney for the Voting Rights Project at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, the turnout rate among registered voters of that population increased by 98 percent between 1998 and 2004 due to language assistance.

In our current political climate, immigrants endure a great deal of hardship. Hate crimes and xenophobic rhetoric are becoming more common. These challenges can make it easy for our immigrant brothers and sisters to become disengaged from the political process. We must do better.

This project is aimed not only at removing barriers to the ballot box, but also at sending a strong message that Franklin County is welcoming and inclusive. American citizens, native or non-native, want the same things. We share similar values of freedom, loving dreams for our families and an enduring commitment to our country.

That’s why we need everyone to get involved. If you speak Somali, Chinese, Spanish, Nepali or Arabic, go to to sign up to become a multilingual poll worker and help hundreds of your fellow Ohioans overcome their language barriers and exhibit their commitment to America by fulfilling their most important obligation as citizens — voting.

About the Author

Usjid Hameed is a Puffin Democracy Fellow for The Andrew Goodman Foundation and the public affairs coordinator with the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Columbus Chapter (CAIR-Columbus) where he focuses on policy, civic engagement, and outreach to empower and defend the civil rights of American-Muslims in central Ohio.