Poll worker Nolan Richardson, left, speaks with Site Supervisor Emmanuel Millan at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center in San Diego on Nov. 8, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Despite blustery skies, poll workers at the Colina Del Sol Recreation Center greeted voters and passersby Tuesday morning with a warm smile and gesture toward the entrance of the vote center. 

The vote center is nestled in one of San Diego County’s most diverse neighborhoods, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly one-fifth of residents in that census tract are naturalized citizens, which means they were born outside of the U.S. but have the right to vote, just like U.S. born citizens. 

More than 70,000 voters in San Diego County requested voting materials in a language other than English. But at this particular vote center, only English, Vietnamese and Spanish were spoken by poll workers, according to the site manager there. 

Why This Matters

Despite laws which attempt to reduce language barriers in the voting process, San Diego County’s vote centers struggle to recruit poll workers who speak some languages voters need.

Laws at the federal, state and local levels require county election offices to provide assistance at voting centers in the languages spoken by residents who live there. Census data is used to determine what languages should be provided at each vote center. 

That data showed that the Colina Del Sol vote center should have also had poll workers who speak Somali and Filipino. The lack of poll workers across the county who speak those languages as well as Laotian, Vietnamese and Chinese has made voting more difficult for some voters, advocates for immigrants said. 

Voters check in to vote at the Colina del Sol Recreation Center in San Diego on Nov. 8, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Cynthia Paes, San Diego County’s registrar of voters, said her office recruits through targeted ads in bilingual newspapers, radio stations and social media. But meeting the goals for hiring bilingual poll workers remains a challenge every year.

The registrar has not yet released finalized data on the number of bilingual poll workers who staffed vote centers across the county, but the office has said those numbers will be available sometime after Election Day. 

Thin Bui, a Vietnamese poll worker, helped five or six voters who speak his language over the four days that the Colina Del Sol voting center was open, including Tuesday morning. Bui said older Vietnamese community members often have more trouble understanding English and need translation. 

“That’s why I try to help them to easily vote,” Bui said, adding that he works as a poll worker to encourage Vietnamese community members to participate in the voting process. 

One study from the Center for Social Innovation at UC Riverside that focused on new voters and low-propensity voters during the 2020 election found that language assistance was a primary reason driving people to the polls as opposed to voting by mail. 

Sam Alvis, site manager at the Colina Del Sol vote center, said the bilingual poll workers at his location including Bui have made significant impact on the ease of the voting process for non-English speaking voters. He estimated his location has served about 20 voters in Spanish or English as of Tuesday morning. 

“While we have language materials written, the ability to speak to them directly and answer the questions was huge. It made their experience so much better,” Alvis said.

The Registrar of Voters provides reference ballots, or facsimile ballots in Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Laotian, and for the first time this year, Somali and Persian. 

But voters who speak these languages must cast their votes on the official votable ballot, which is only available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino. 

Site Manager Emmanuel Millan speaks with poll worker Francisca Rosas Lopez at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center in San Diego on Nov. 8, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

A few miles down the road at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center near Encanto, Emmanuel Millan, the site manager, said bilingual poll workers there who speak Spanish and Filipino have helped nervous or unsure non-English speaking voters feel more welcome in the voting process. 

“Then immediately they come in, they’re checked in by a poll worker who speaks the same language as them. That all just melts away,” Millan said. “They come out of their shell and it’s all friendly vibes and they know that they’re in a good and safe place to come and vote and do their job.” 

Poll worker Mario Diaz assists voter Felisa Pastoral Acantilado at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center in San Diego on Nov. 8, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Leo, a 77-year-old voter from the Philippines who preferred to use only his first name, said he’s voted in every election since becoming a U.S. citizen. Though he prefers to vote in English because it’s difficult for him to read in his native language, he knows other older Filipino voters who have not voted because they don’t feel comfortable speaking English. 

“They want to vote, but because of the language barrier, they stay home and they don’t know what to do,” Leo said. 

Across the county at an Escondido vote center, one poll worker said she speaks Chinese – Mandarin and Cantonese – but has not been able to assist anyone in those languages in this election cycle. She said she would have wanted to go to a voting center where she could help people in Chinese.

“I like them to use my language, but I’d be happy speaking English. It’s just as comfortable as speaking Chinese,” the poll worker said, who preferred not to use her name since she was not authorized to speak with the media. 

An immigrant from China, she has been in the U.S. nearly half a decade and has worked as a poll worker since 2008. She wants to help others who might be hesitant to vote because of language barriers. 

“Having that ability with the language can kind of very quickly put a lot of people at ease if they are having this self doubt about language. So it’s good to have people that can do it and then be here and then help out,” she said. 

Correction: Nov. 9, 2022 

The proportion of naturalized citizens in the U.S. census tract including Colina Del Sol is one-fifth. An earlier version of this story misstated the proportion.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...