Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte (D–Flatbush) joined Councilman Mark Treygar (D–Coney Island) in a push to advocate for more translation services for Russian and Haitian Creole speaking voters at City Hall on Dec. 5. The politicians demanded that the Board of Elections revise their current law, which limits interpretation services for a select number of languages.
For the midterm election, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs stepped in to assist voters who are not proficient in English, by adding language interpretation services for the Board of Elections lacks. The languages included: Russian, Haitian Creole, Italian, Arabic, Polish, and Yiddish, and was offered at about 100 poll sites by volunteers meeting voters outside.
The Flatbush politician, who became the first Haitian-American woman elected to office in the city, says she became a staunch advocate for interpretation access years ago after witnessing hostility from police officers at a polling site when she tried to interpret in Haitian Creole.
“Cops pushed me out and tried to arrest me, and I was hurt and I cried,” said Bichotte.
She said the experience was eye-opening, and encouraged her to fight by challenging the existing rules, which she also introduced two bills to the assembly for. But now she joins Treygar and Councilman Mathieu Eugene (D–Crown Heights), to call on the election board to revise its current laws.
“We cannot allow this because after that, I too joined the fight with Councilman Treygar and Eugene and all advocacy groups, on pushing for legislation that will make sure that people who speak different languages across the city and state of New York, have equal access in terms of voter access,” she said.
The Board of Elections only allows poll site interpretations for Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Bangla. During the midterm elections, the mayor’s office stationed volunteers who translated in other languages, but law prohibits them from providing that service inside a polling site.
Bichotte said despite the efforts from the Office of Immigrant Affairs, many of her non-Haitian Creole speaking constituents reached out to her office, expressing concern and bewilderment for some Haitian voters.
The assemblywoman said restrictions from the agency, which requires a certain number of speakers for a language statewide to allow interpretation, leaves areas across the city with high concentrations of non-English speakers in dire need.
“We need five to 10 percent of a particular language spoken across the whole state — so that’s 19 to 20 million people and that makes no sense,” she said. “If you have an election district in Rockland County, Nassau County, or Brooklyn, that’s heavily populated with immigrants, or a particular language — they should have interpretation.”
She also said with a new democratic-run state government, efforts to pass bills once in limbo, will see the light of day and she plans to work with her political colleagues to advocate for such a move.
“We are living in the days of reform,” said Bichotte. “I’m going to work with Treygar to actually adopt his bill because this bill should be effective across the whole state. We want to adopt Mark Treygar’s bill in the form of a statewide bill, because it’s really important to make sure it’s part of election reform package.”