Korean Translators Barred From Texas Polling Place

At only nine days away from midterm elections, a voter and translator are speaking out after a misunderstanding at a Houston voting poll.

Volunteers with the Korean American Voters League say they organized Sunday as a special day of early voting, with Korean translators at the Trini Mendenhall polling site on Wirt.

“They work hard as Americans, they build our community. What they want to do is participate in the political system. They want to vote,” said the president of the league Hyunja Norman.

On Sunday, the translators say they were forced out of the polling site by a worker.

“Some Korean elders came out and the students greeted them and said some things in Korean and she (election judge) got very upset and said ‘you can’t speak in another language here that we don’t understand because that could be electioneering,'” said volunteer Dona Kim Murphey.

Then, she says, deputy constables showed up. “The poll workers are deciding to call law enforcement on translators. That’s absurd. It’s intimidating and absolutely voter suppression,” said Kim Murphey.

The county clerk’s administrator of elections, Sonya Aston, says translators are provided in Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese based on census numbers. But she adds, anyone may bring their own interpreter into the polls but that person assisting must take an oath before helping.

Aston also says volunteer translators may not solicit voters inside. They can only approach and ask if help is needed if they are outside and beyond the 100-foot perimeter from the front door. But volunteers fear not everyone will be reached.

“We are waving our hands, flailing to get people’s attention as they approach the entrance hoping they see us so we can provide them with Korean translation services,” said Kim-Murphey.

Murphey said ads in Korean media and other outlets encouraged people to vote Sunday, because others had volunteered to be there to help translate. She said the trouble first arose because students were also at the center to try to get names on a petition for a Korean language ballot in future elections. She said that behavior stopped as soon as the students were told not to do it.

A group of people chatting in Korean just outside the polling place grew, however, and that’s when Murphey said the judge — who presumably could not understand them — told the translators they needed to offer their services beyond the electioneering line.

“Practically speaking, it means that the only way to offer our services is to basically flail around, jumping up and down and screaming, to try to get somebody’s attention so that they know translation is available,” she said, adding, “We were suppressed.”

Law enforcement and the clerk’s office were called to the site, Murphey said. (Ted Cruz, coincidentally, also came to cast his ballot.) Murphey, who posted several videos documenting the incident to Facebook, said she plans to explore legal action.