Harris County, Texas, to Offer Virtual Translator at Polls

Harris County residents who primarily speak Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese or 26 other languages now will have access to a virtual translator at the polls, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced Friday.

by Zach Despart, Houston Chronicle / February 18, 2020

(TNS) — Harris County, Texas, residents who primarily speak Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese or 26 other languages now will have access to a virtual translator at the polls, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced Friday, part of a series of initiatives aimed at improving the county’s voter participation rate.

In a nod to Harris County’s diversity — more than a third of its 4.7 million residents are native speakers of a language other than English — elected officials want to eliminate communication barriers at voting sites.

“With this innovative technology, interpreters can communicate with the voter and poll worker in real time via video chat to make the voting process easier and more accessible,” Trautman said.

Flanked by county Elections Director Michael Winn, Trautman offered a demonstration of the machines at the West Gray Multi-Service Center. The tablet devices, which previously stored electronic poll books and were set to be discarded, allow a poll worker to make a video conference call to a translator in the desired language. The translator then can help the poll worker and voter communicate.

Harris County’s ballot features four languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese and the clerk’s office has poll workers who speak each. Residents speak more than 140 languages in the Houston area, however.

Trautman said the virtual translators will be available at all 52 early voting locations for the March primary elections.

Dozens of Korean-speaking voters were frustrated when then-County Clerk Stan Stanart barred translators from operating inside a Spring Branch polling site in 2018. Stanart said he had to follow the Texas Election Code, which limits who can operate inside a 100-foot buffer zone at polling places.

Korean American Voters League President Hyunja Norman, who helped organize the Spring Branch voters, welcomed the virtual translation devices.

“I think they can be very beneficial,” she said. “Still, the human factor cannot be ignored.”

Norman said many of the Korean-American residents in Houston who need language assistance are elderly immigrants who are new to voting and often intimidated by technology. She said she still would like to see real-life translators gain more access to polling sites.

Early primary voting begins Feb. 18 and Election Day is March 3.

Trautman encouraged residents to vote early, which she said often is more convenient.

“You never know what might happen on Election Day,” Trautman said. “Early voting ensures you have different time and date options to have your voice heard.”

Last year, Trautman launched voting centers, which allow residents to cast ballots at any location on Election Day, rather than only in their assigned precincts. The move proved popular, as 52 percent of voters cast ballots outside their home precincts in last November’s municipal elections.

©2020 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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