Voters fill out ballots at St. Stephanus Lutheran Church in St. Paul during the 2021 elections. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

For the first time in Minnesota history, a local jurisdiction must train and provide multilingual election judges.

Ramsey County is the state’s first jurisdiction required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to recruit and train interpreter election judges who speak, in this case, Hmong. The 2020 U.S. Census showed that the county’s Hmong population makes up over 5 percent of the county’s residents who are of voting age. Federal law requires communities that meet that 5 percent threshold to provide language services for voters.

According to the U.S. Census, more than 11 percent of Ramsey County residents speak an Asian and Pacific Islander language. Hmong is the second most common language in the county, which has a total population of more than 552,352.

Interpretation services have been offered at polling places across the state, including Ramsey County, for more than 100 years. But this year, Ramsey County is undertaking a new effort to train interpreter judges. While the county is only compelled by law to train Hmong interpreter judges, it is also recruiting and training judges who speak several other languages.

Judges play a wide range of roles on Election Day: they greet voters as they enter polling places, hand ballots to voters, provide voting instructions, and assist voters at the ballot counter.  Other judges register voters and handle documents at polling places. Interpreter judges can be assigned to any of these responsibilities.

In the past, the county employed election judges who spoke multiple languages, but did not provide them formal training.

“Having someone help you through the whole voting process is going to let you know your vote matters,” said Ramsey County elections manager David Triplett. “We want you here and we’re going to make sure that you can successfully participate in this election.”

No word for ‘vote’

Chou Moua is a trained interpreter, but when he’s helping Hmong elders participate in elections, he can’t easily translate the word “vote.” It doesn’t exist in the Hmong language.

“Usually we ‘Hmongify’ some English words or we explain it out,” Moua said. “For example, we don’t say ‘voting,’ we say ‘pov npav,’ which literally means ‘tossing in your ticket.’ ”

Now, Moua is developing Ramsey County’s training curriculum for Hmong interpreter judges. 

“We’re trying to make sure that they can communicate clearly,” Moua said. “My model is translate meaning for meaning, not word for word.”

The Ramsey County elections office is now recruiting interpreter election judges, so they’ll be ready before the primary elections August 9 and the general election November 8. The county is seeking Hmong-speaking applicants, but is offering interpretation training to bilingual applicants who speak Spanish, Somali, Oromo, and Karen, too. The county also encourages anyone who speaks other languages to apply. 

The county hopes to train 200 total interpreter election judges this year, Triplett said. In St. Paul, 64 out of 95 precincts needed a Hmong interpreter in last year’s election.

Any U.S. citizen of voting age can be an election judge. Students who are at least 16 years old can also serve. Judges are paid for a 15-hour Election Day shift and a training session that lasts two to three hours. Interpreter election judges in Ramsey County will receive an additional paid training session.

Interpretation services in 1896 

Language needs have evolved, but Secretary of State Steve Simon said Minnesota has offered interpretation and translation services at polling places since 1896. 

“Back then the languages were Swedish, Norwegian, and German,” Simon said. “Now, none of those languages are on the list. Now, it’s Somali, Spanish, Hmong, and others.”

Every 10 years, the U.S. Census informs counties of the languages spoken most frequently in their jurisdiction, alerting them to interpretation and translation needs. Most counties in the state provide some sort of interpretation or translation services at polling places, even if they don’t meet the Voting Rights Act threshold, Simon said.

“As the state becomes more diverse in areas like Rochester, Mankato, Worthington, Wilmar, St. Cloud, there’s far more need,” Simon said. “The appreciation, the relief people get—you can feel it.”

Ramsey County expands language services

Ramsey County provides information online and via pamphlets about elections and early voting in Hmong, Somali, Spanish, and Oromo. They also provide a packet of translated materials at some polling places. In addition to multilingual judges at the polls, judges can also assist voters by connecting them to interpreters available on a phone line.

The county first assigns election judges who signed up through political parties. It also recruits judges. Triplett said the county is working with Moua and the Hmong Outreach Network to find potential judges who can speak Hmong.

“The best way to recruit election judges is word of mouth from friends,” Triplett said. “But that doesn’t always get us to the amount of people we need.”

The county also advertises the position through social media and local news organizations. Triplett works closely with high schools to sign student judges up. 

Wages for election judges range from $16 to $20 an hour, depending on the type of judge. Judges work 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. with meal times. They are also paid for a two-hour training session prior to Election Day. It’s unclear how long the interpretation training session will last, since the curriculum is in development.

West metro cities on their own

In neighboring Hennepin County, each city provides their own interpretation and translation services. According to Minneapolis Elections administrator Jeff Narabrook, the city utilizes multilingual election judges, but it does not provide formal interpretation training. Election judges can call an interpreter through a phone line if needed.

“Ramsey County is the first jurisdiction to be subject to the Voting Rights Act requirement,” he said. “It’s possible Hennepin County or the city of Minneapolis will fall under that some day. I’ve always wanted there to be more that we can do to support our interpreters.”

Some polling places in Minneapolis receive materials translated into other languages. For example, the Brian Coyle Center in the Cedar–Riverside neighborhood, which has a large number of Somali voters, offers voting directions in Somali.

Minneapolis also provides pre-written scripts for multilingual election judges so they can explain nuanced elements of elections, like ranked-choice voting.

Narabrook said interpreters offer better service than translated materials because some voters can’t read the documents. 

Narabrook said the city hasn’t considered providing training for their interpreter judges because of budget issues.

Election judges earn $17.15 per hour and work 16 hours from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Judges also have an option of working an eight-hour half day shift. Minneapolis election judges get paid for a three-hour training session ahead of Election Day.

Greater Minnesota

Ramsey County officials first approached Moua, who runs a consulting firm that works closely with the Hmong Outreach Network, to develop training for election judges in December. 

“Especially in the Hmong community, we come from a background where we fled war. There’s a distrust of government,” Moua said. “We’re making sure that we’re not retraumatizing people, but that we’re there to assist.”

Moua plans to split the training session into chapters with quizzes. Topics will likely include privacy practices, how to assist voters while remaining neutral, and conflict resolution.

Simon said that at an April 22 elections conference, state officials will encourage county and municipal election administrators to recruit more bilingual election judges and improve translated materials.

“We do get pushback from people who say, ‘Why do you need voting materials in any language other than English? After all, you can’t vote unless you’re a citizen. You can’t become a citizen in most cases unless you pass an English proficiency test,’ ” Simon said.

Interpretation and translation improves voting access, and the need for that extends beyond the Twin Cities, he said.

Moua added that he’s noticed an increasing need for interpretation in other Asian and Pacific Islander languages, such as Nepali, Karen and Karenni, and Chuukese, a Micronesian language that’s spoken by more than half the population in the town of Milan in Chippewa County.

“There’s a huge gap in those who need help,” Moua said.

Despite the historic development in Ramsey County, Moua wonders: Is a Somali voter in Wilmar or a Hmong voter in Walnut Grove casting their vote?

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...