As Boston gets ready for Election Day, there’s one job that's particularly difficult to fill: interpreter.
When a U.S. citizen who isn’t fluent in English wants to vote, an interpreter helps them—translating the ballot and explaining the process. Unlike other poll workers, ballot interpreters don’t have to be U.S. citizens. All they need is the desire to help with the democratic process.
For 13 years, Lynne Onishuk has helped coordinate Boston’s elections from her office deep inside City Hall. On her desk is a packet of yellow paper. Flipping through the pages, she explains it’s the master guide for Boston’s ballot interpreters.
“It’s very wrinkled and very well used,” she said.
Nobody I talked to in City Hall knew exactly when the position of "ballot interpreter" was created. But sometime between 20 and 30 years ago, Boston’s Election Department realized they had a problem.
Under the federal Voting Rights Act, Boston’s ballots had to be printed in English and Spanish, but voters were demanding more: Spanish speakers had questions they wanted to ask. And citizens who spoke a language that's wasn’t English or Spanish also wanted to vote.
The solution is in that wrinkled stack of yellow paper. It has two columns. One lists all 255 precincts in the city. In the other, someone has handwritten which precincts need which language translators.
“Russian in Allston-Brighton, Creole in Hyde Park, Dorchester is Vietnamese,” Onishuk said as she looked through the pages. “You are good to go with Spanish everywhere, wherever someone can help.”
The goal is for interpreters to work at polling places. But since the Election Department is always looking for more interpreters, the city has developed another system. It takes the form of a windowless conference room and a lot of phone lines.
It’s a call center that’s set up in City Hall, just a room over from Onishuk’s office. On election day, there will be more than a dozen translators. During early voting, there are just a handful of people staffing it. They come from all around the globe—China and Vietnam, Cape Verde and Haiti.
The youngest interpreter is 30. The oldest? He says he’s been coming to work at the call center for a long time.
"I don’t remember exactly, but it can be about 18 years," said Oleg Volya.
Volya came to the U.S. from Moscow, where he was an engineering professor. Like everyone else in the room, he’s an immigrant, and remembers how hard it was to move here.
"Everything was strange for me—not strange—amazing but strange," he said.
Voting was particularly amazing and strange. He says it’s a world apart from what happens in Russia.
Vinny Huynh, who is sitting next to Volya, says he had a similar experience. He’s originally from Vietnam, where he says there’s “no freedom at all.” And his favorite thing about America’s political system is its freedom.
While the interpreters are paid—$9 an hour—many tell me that’s not why they’re here. Instead, they talk about feeling a sense of pride in helping the country’s democracy.
However, the work can be frustrating.
Across the table from Volya and Huynh, Emmanuel St. Pierre answers a call for a voter who needs a French Creole translation.
St. Pierre, who’s wearing a spiffy suit for the day’s work, listens intently. But, after a few moments, he begins to shake his head.
"She wants me to tell her who to vote [for]. I cannot do that,” St. Pierre said.
He has noticed that people generally arrive at polling stations knowing who they're going to vote for in one race—say Clinton versus Trump—but when it comes to the rest of the ballot, they often ask the interpreters which way to vote.
In this room, everyone is adamant that they can’t answer that question.
And Volya says they also face one other challenge.
"Sometimes some languages I don’t know,” he said. “For example, I still don’t know—what does it mean, 'Tagalog?' Where is it?”
Tagalog is a language people speak in the Philippines.
When the interpreters get a call about a language that's not represented in the room, they ask other departments in City Hall to see if there’s anyone who can help.
And if they can’t find someone, their only option is to apologize—in English.