Helping voters overcome language barrier
For Andrew Chevrez, a solo lawyer in Milwaukee, one reason it was worth giving more than 15 hours of his time to serve as a poll worker was that he speaks Spanish and was able to help many Spanish-speaking voters. Chevrez was one of two or three bilingual workers at his site, and one of three lawyers, out of a total of about 20 workers.
Across the country, he believes, election authorities should be prepared to recruit enough bilingual workers—and not only to assist Spanish-speaking voters. Different locales have differing populations of immigrants, he noted, citing as an example the Hmong communities in some areas of Minnesota. Federal law requires language assistance at polling places once a locale reaches a certain threshold in terms of numbers of people who speak a particular language, Chevrez explains. The first time he assisted in an election was in 2012, he notes, when Milwaukee had recently reached the point where it needed Spanish-speaking poll workers.
In addition to feeling called as a Spanish speaker, Chevrez also believes it’s important for him to serve as a poll worker because he’s a lawyer. “The procedures and the processes in place for voting can get quite technical,” he says. “I think lawyers are absolutely necessary to be at polling sites because they can sort these things out.” Lawyers are also well equipped, he adds, to defuse difficult situations by listening and communicating clearly.
Wisconsin is among the states offering same-day voter registration at polling places, and Chevrez’s main role in this election was to help register new voters and assist people who had been removed from the rolls because of inactivity or who had to deal with a change of address or name.
“The voters we saw were pretty motivated and determined to make their vote count,” Chevrez says, adding that (as was expected during the pandemic) the crowd of in-person voters was smaller than in past elections because of the increase in absentee ballots. Still, he notes, this was different from the “dreary” in-person participation that is typical in many elections.
“We did not see really long lines,” he says, “but we had a steady flow of people.”
The total of 20 workers (some working for half the day) was about double what is typical, he notes, and having so many within the site did cause him some concern about social distancing. Poll workers were provided with masks, face shields, and hand sanitizer, Chevrez adds, with Plexiglas to keep them separate from the voters. Unlike during Wisconsin’s August 2020 primary (for offices other than president), he says, no voters at his site came in without a mask.
Chevrez did not note any unusual incidents at his polling site and has not heard of any at other sites around Milwaukee. “Surprisingly, people were very civil, very cordial,” he says, adding that there was a large number of election observers, but that they mostly followed the rules about where they could be and whom they could talk to.
One of his other roles, Chevrez adds, was to reassure voters that any minor hiccups in getting them registered and ready to vote didn’t mean they would be unable to cast their ballot. Even during such a highly charged election, he says, for many people, voting is something akin to going to the dentist—meaning it’s an unpleasant chore. “Sometimes, if they’re impeded in the slightest, they’re a flight risk,” he jokes, “where they’ll say, ‘Well, forget it.’”