Some Arkansas counties recruit bilingual poll workers ahead of Nov. 8 election

By: - October 10, 2022 7:50 am

A bill passed an Arkansas legislative committee on Thursday that would make it harder for Arkansans to petition for ballot initiatives. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Alex Reyes is the sole Hispanic poll worker in Yell County, where about 21 percent of the population is Hispanic. In the coming election cycles, Reyes believes more bilingual poll workers like her will be needed to help the state’s increasingly diverse population.

“This is the tip of the iceberg…you’re going to need to speak Spanish, poll workers, and not just Spanish, all the languages possible,” she said. “We have a Laotian and Vietnamese community here as well.”

About 8.5% of Arkansas’ population is Hispanic or Latino and 2.3% is Asian, according to the Census Bureau. That’s up from 6.4% and 1.5% in 2010, respectively.

Historically, turnout by Hispanic voters has been low in the region, said Howard Orsburn, Yell County Election Commission chairman.

“It’s a shame that the people that live in the community that they’re not involved any more than they are,” Orsburn said. 

“And we want their involvement, we want their vote. We don’t care how they vote. We’d just like them to be part of the system.”

To encourage more participation, Orsburn said, they need more bilingual community members like Reyes, co-director of the River Valley Adult Learning Alliance, to make connections.

“I don’t know how to do it. I can speak very little Spanish,” he said.

“But we think — and maybe we’re naive — if you’ve got a strong bilingual Hispanic person within the community that has a good reputation, I don’t know how else to go about doing it other than having that point person and letting them know that we welcome those people. We welcome people to come and be a part of this.”

Last year, Reyes was invited to speak at a Yell County Republican event about why the Hispanic community doesn’t vote. She then partnered with the Arkansas River Valley Regional Library System to launch a bilingual podcast focused on voter education called Memoria Colectiva, Collective Memory.

“I want to explain that to the people out there because I bet there’s a lot of people like me that they can vote, but they don’t vote because they don’t know what is going on and they don’t know how to do it,” she said.

Reyes, who’s lived in Arkansas for more than two decades, was recruited as a poll worker during the May primary and will work the polls again in November. 

“Since I came here, one of my biggest dreams is to be able to serve the Hispanic community in a good capacity,” she said.

Alex Reyes

Orsburn has been part of the election commission for six years and said this is the first time he remembers a dedicated effort to involve more Hispanic residents in the election process.

“I can’t see it doing anything but growing,” he said.

Approximately 60 poll workers have been hired to staff Yell County’s nine vote centers, but Orsburn said they would love to have more bilingual poll workers. It is a paid position, and Yell County poll workers receive $11 an hour, the state’s minimum wage. 

“Ola, Dardanelle and Danville would be real valuable for us to have bilingual [poll workers], especially if that would encourage improved voters,” he said.

Youth involvement

Jennifer Price has seen a need for bilingual poll workers since becoming Washington County’s director of elections in 2009. The county is home to one of the largest populations of Marshallese residents outside of the Marshall Islands and about 18% of the population is Hispanic.

To assist voters, election materials that have been translated into Spanish are available at polling sites and efforts have been made to recruit bilingual poll workers, Price said.

Election officials are also enlisting the help of high school students thanks to a 2019 state law that allows them to volunteer as election pages. Participants are not required to be a registered voter, they can receive an excused absence from school and they will serve under the direct supervision of election officials.

About 140 students from Fayetteville High School and three Springdale high schools, many of whom speak Spanish and Marshallese, are assisting in this year’s election. They will be assigned in groups of two or three to various polling sites throughout their school districts.

“This new equipment is so easy to use and students, they’re not afraid of technology,” Price said. “And as our poll workers are getting older, sometimes having that younger generation work with the older generation is amazing.”

Students who receive training can participate in various duties such as checking in voters, providing instructions for operating the voting machines and guarding the ballot box.

Training also exempts students from a 2009 state law limiting someone other than a poll worker from assisting more than six voters. 

U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks in August declared that the six-voter limit violates the federal Voting Rights Act. Brooks ordered state election officials to cease enforcement of the law in advance of the 2022 General Election.

But the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 28 granted a request for a stay pending appeal from the secretary of state’s office.

Because of the stay, Secretary of State John Thurston’s office has advised election officials to continue enforcing the six-person limit in the November election, but that does not apply to students volunteering as election pages, Price said.

“Because they have attended training, they are not limited in the number of voters that they can assist, and that’s the key that we see with having these students,” she said.

“They’re always going to be under the direction of a more seasoned poll worker and the supervisor, but when it comes to providing the translation, we definitely value having those students helping us with that.”

Approximately 400 poll workers will be needed to cover 41 polling locations throughout Washington County on Election Day. Poll workers will be paid $11.30 an hour, and Price said they’ve been fortunate to receive several applications. 

Ideally, she would like to have at least two bilingual poll workers at Springdale’s seven vote centers. Right now, the county only has six bilingual poll workers, not counting students.

Bilingual student volunteers are an asset to the community, but their participation in the program also provides a learning opportunity.

“It’s a bonus that the students are bilingual, but the ultimate goal is that these students become lifelong voters, that they recognize the importance of voting and they get involved at an early age,” Price said.

Planning for the future

Pulaski County officials have not actively recruited bilingual poll workers this year, but election coordinator Amanda Dickens expects that to change in the future.

“It’s not something that has become a dire need that we desperately need those workers, but I have a feeling we may in the future in certain areas of the county,” Dickens said. “But right now it hasn’t been a real major issue.”

More than 8% of Pulaski County is Hispanic or Latino and there’s a growing Hispanic community in the southwest Little Rock area, Dickens said.

“A lot of those people are now getting registered to vote,” she said. “I think in the future it would be helpful to purposely hire people who can also speak English and Spanish and get those people out and work on the polls.”

Around 650 poll workers will be stationed at Pulaski County’s 90 election locations on Election Day. Dickens estimates less than 10 of them can speak Spanish.

More than 200 people have signed up to work the election in Sebastian County. The majority are poll workers who will run six voting sites during early voting, which starts Oct. 24, and 32 polling locations on Election Day.

Poll worker applicants are asked if they speak a second language, but county election officials aren’t actively recruiting bilingual poll workers because there hasn’t been much demand for translation services, election coordinator Meghan Hassler said.

“It seems that if they need that kind of help, they usually bring someone with them that can do it for them,” Hassler said. “That’s the feedback that I get from my poll workers.”

This year there’s “just a handful” of bilingual poll workers who speak Spanish and they may be strategically placed in an area where there’s a need for their skill set, she said.

About 15% of Sebastian County’s population is Hispanic and roughly 5% is Asian. Fort Smith, the county’s largest city, has a sizable Vietnamese community. Nearly 51,000 Indochinese refugees were processed through Fort Chaffee in 1975 after the Vietnam War.

Arkansas United deputy director Josh Price has spoken with leaders of Fort Smith’s Vietnamese community about their needs and being more involved in the election process. Connecting with the city’s Vietnamese residents is part of the immigrant advocacy group’s efforts to expand services to the state’s Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

In addition to AAPI outreach, Price, a former Pulaski County election commissioner, is also involved in civic engagement and voter registration initiatives.

Leading up to November’s election, Arkansas United has worked on recruiting bilingual poll workers in Central Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas and Sebastian County by speaking with election commissions as well as communities of color.

“People are willing to do it if they just know about it,” Price said. “The thing is they just don’t know and if you don’t tell them, then they’re definitely not going to know.”

As an example, Price said the first time his mother, an immigrant from the Philippines, voted was when he turned 18 years old and took her to the polls.

“She said nobody has really expressed any interest in her going to go vote,” he said. “That’s something that sticks with me — that if you’re not asked, you’re not going to go vote.”

While organizations and some election officials are actively working to involve more bilingual voters in the election process, Price said it’s going to take time to increase participation in Arkansas.

“It’s just something that’s very new to those communities and honestly it’s going to be a slow burn,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen overnight.”  

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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.