To comply with federal law, Dallas County adds Vietnamese translations to elections materials

This article was co-published with the Dallas Morning News.

Dallas County will be required to offer election materials and ballots in Vietnamese in the upcoming March 1 primary — the first time a language other than English or Spanish has been offered. 

The move is required by federal law because at least 5% of Dallas County Vietnamese-speaking citizens who are of voting age have limited English proficiency.

The Census Bureau notified the county on Dec. 21 of the required change, which, while in keeping with the timeline announced by the Bureau earlier in the year, left the county less than two months to recruit Vietnamese speaking poll workers, translate voting information and ballots and have Vietnamese-language signs printed for polling places before early voted started this week. 

Texas’ primaries are the earliest in the country, giving Dallas County — the largest county in the state making such a change — a particularly compressed window for the dozens of steps that compliance will require. 

“It’s been kind of a short runway,” said Nicholas Solorzano, a spokesman for the Dallas County Elections Department. “We’ve been just pushing nonstop on it.”

There are nearly 21,000 citizens who are of voting age and speak Vietnamese in Dallas County, according to the Census Bureau. Dallas now joins Tarrant County — which began in 2018 — and Harris County — which began in 2002 — in offering Vietnamese language services.

Solorzano said the tight turnaround made it difficult to recruit enough poll workers for every polling location as required by federal law, forcing the county to rely on a phone-based translation service for most polling locations. 

Vietnamese-speaking poll workers will be placed in areas with high concentrations of people who speak Vietnamese, specifically in the suburbs of Garland and Sachse. The county has also plans to hire a full-time alternative language coordinator who speaks fluent Vietnamese and assists with community outreach and translation.

Dallas County narrowly missed the threshold for Vietnamese-language speakers of voting age in 2016, the last time the Census updated the list of included jurisdictions, leading some experts to question why the county did not begin recruiting poll workers prior to being forced to in order to avoid such a steep climb in such a small window of time. 

Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor to the elections program at the Democracy Fund, said that all counties struggle to implement new languages because elections offices often lack the resources to make the changes and do not qualify for assistance programs until the Census Bureau makes new designations. Because Dallas County has such a short timeline for implementation, the problems here are compacted.

 “The rub here is that too often election officials are only resourced to provide statutorily required or mandated services and may not have the ability to fully support additional languages, even if they want to,” she said. 

Still, local and national advocates say Dallas County’s response to the new requirement is a good start.

“It’s a good thing for sort of stopgap measure until they can figure out where to get more people and where to assign them effectively,” said Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, a senior staff attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Every U.S. citizen should be able to cast a fully informed ballot, and the way that they can do that is to be able to get that ballot in the language that they can read and understand.”

‘Issue of accessibility’

In Texas, nearly a third of Asian Americans have limited English proficiency, according to the Census. In Dallas County, 37% of those who speak Vietnamese have limited English proficiency, though not all of these are citizens of voting age. The Census Bureau estimates that 10,000 such individuals live within the county. 

Even with English proficiency, the language on ballot measures and voting instructions can make it hard for those who are not native speakers. 

“That’s an issue of accessibility,” said Raymond Partolan, national field director for APIA Vote, a group that works to increase civic participation among Aisan and Pacific Islander groups. ““It’s always a challenge to work with limited English proficiency groups, but it’s an important challenge.”

It’s also a growing challenge in Texas, where the Asian American population grew by two-thirds between 2010 and 2020. That growth has led to more Texas counties adding more Asian languages at the polls.The previous Vietnamese-language rollouts in Harris and Tarrant Counties were not without their own hiccups. In 2003, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division monitored elections in Houston after the county failed to provide electronic ballots in Vietnamese. The county had added Vietnamese language electronic ballots the following year.

“To be able to ensure that there is equitable access to voting, making sure that information is offered to everyone equitably is crucial,” said Harris County’s director of communications, Leah Shah. 

Dallas County began reaching out to local Vietnamese community groups as soon as they were notified about the new requirement, Solorzano said, and hired a translator in mid-January.

Printed materials, like signs and ballots, were the first to be translated, starting in January. Solorzano said they continue to translate all materials — from social media posts to official voting notices — on a daily basis. 

It’s a time-consuming process, especially with the technical and often complicated language of voting. In 2018, for example, a Bexar County notice accidentally translated a message using the Spanish word for “sewage” instead of “runoff.”

“You’ve got to think about the voting context,”  Lorenzo-Giguere said. “What did these words mean? Is there an actual translation in that language for each of those words?”

Next, Dallas County began trying to recruit as many Vietnamese-speaking poll workers as possible. It’s hard enough to recruit enough poll workers to run the election without worrying about language, Solorzano said. Now, the county’s recruiting must account for proficiency in three different languages. 

“We will have Vietnamese translators in person at vote centers that are in areas with a significant number of Vietnamese speakers,” Solorzano said. 

The rest of Dallas’s some 400 locations will be outfitted with cell phones that voters can use to access translators. The swift effort is impressive, Lorenzo-Giguere said, although her organization – AALDEF – will be on site during voting to conduct exit polls and make sure there are no lingering accessibility issues for Vietnamese-speaking voters.

“The signs look good so far,” Lorenzo-Giguere said. “If they can just figure out how to recruit and target the assignment of their bilingual poll workers effectively, that will be sort of a proof of the pudding.”

Increased participation

The new requirement comes as other groups were already pushing for more Asian American voters to turn out in the primary statewide, and especially in Dallas.

APIA Vote and the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association — APAPA for short — are organizing phone banks and text-message banks in various Asian languages specifically targeting voters in Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. 

Now, they say, they’re pushing extra hard to get the word out to Vietnamese speakers that Dallas’ polls are even more accessible.

“The voter education is really needed,” said Alice Yi, the chair of APAPA’s Austin chapter. “Every time you do [something] for the first time, it’s already harder.”

Yi said she’s worked to place notices in local Vietnamese-language newspapers and targeted social media advertisements to reach that community and get the word out. Still, that outreach has been slow.

Nancy Tiên, a Vietnamese-American who was born and raised in Dallas, also works with APAPA. She said she grew up helping bilingual family members learn how to vote. Still, the language of voting was a challenge to interpret.

“Voting, honestly, is very intimidating,” Tiên said. “That’s not the most comfortable place to interface with really technical language in a second language.”

Even as an English speaker, she said, learning when and where to vote can be tricky. Navigating that in another language can create barriers that prevent minority groups from having a voice.

“Anytime someone who was marginalized gets access to the polls is a good thing,” Tiên said. “I’m excited to tell my mom that she can go vote.”