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Easy online voter registration? Not for many of Minnesota’s new citizens

By  Kathryn Styer Martinez

Registering online to vote and get an absentee ballot is easy in Minnesota — as long as English is your dominant language. If not, that online process can be a frustrating experience, one that advocates fear is keeping eligible Minnesotans from voting this fall.

Registering at the Minnesota Secretary of State website in a language other than English requires access to a home office, tech savvy and English skills. Voters will need these things to print a PDF file or to convert it into a Microsoft Word document and then return the form by email, fax or mail, hurdles that people who can register in English don’t face.

“In order to do it in another language, it needs to be printed out and completed, versus, to do it in English to just have, bam bam bam, a very simple online form that you can do,” Ryan Perez, a community organizer with the group Communities Organizing Latinx Power and Action, said of the state’s online registration process.

“It’s not a reasonable process,” said Perez, who along with other advocates wrote to Secretary of State Steve Simon highlighting the disparity in the registration process, saying “non-English speakers and limited-English speakers lack the same online tools as their peers.”

Online registration is especially important this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data from the Secretary of State’s office shows non-English language voter information web pages were accessed almost 60,000 times from May to September.

However, PDF forms to apply for the absentee ballots in that same time period were only accessed 1,676 times.

‘Exceptionally hard’

The Secretary of State website provides voter registrations and absentee ballot applications in Russian, Chinese, Hmong, Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer, Oromo, Amharic, Somali and Spanish. A registration form in S’gaw Karen is provided, but not an absentee ballot application, and it’s rather difficult to find.

However, the only PDF version available as a fillable form — a helpful tool that helps people complete forms without printing them — is in regular-sized English. A larger font English form for people with adaptive needs is not fillable. For people who can’t navigate the English online process to register to vote or apply for an absentee ballot, there are many more hurdles.

In order to submit their form, they must find the PDF file that corresponds to their language, download it, print it, fill out the form, then navigate through the English portion of the website to find out where to address their envelope and then send in their form.

Compounding the problem: Most of the materials were not up to date until MPR News began asking questions.

Of all the non-English absentee ballots applications available on the Secretary of State website until Monday afternoon, only two had been available for the year 2020. All other ballot applications were for the year 2018 and had incorrect election dates listed. Every non-English voter registration form is dated to 2016.

The Secretary of State’s office has said that they will be looking into converting the PDF in fillable forms. The office will roll out a full election site in S’gaw Karen once they resolve issues rendering the language characters.

“If you’re a non-English speaker, not only do you have to take these additional steps, but these are steps that are exceptionally hard for the groups of people we’re talking about,” said Perez.

“And so for example, to have a home printer, well, an immigrant who is a first-generation new American who’s in the Latino community or who’s in the Hmong community does not typically have a home printer. In fact, many white Americans don’t have a home printer either.”

Even if a person successfully finds, prints and fills out their voter registration form, they still have to find out where to send the form. And that information is back on the English side of the website.

Or if a Minnesota voter successfully applies for and receives their absentee ballot, it will still be in English.

‘Big old fence’

State election leaders say they’ve done a lot to make the system more welcoming to voters who don’t speak English as a first language.

“Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships” are their most successful voter outreach method, said Nasser Mussa, the state’s voter outreach director.

He said he’s met with leaders from Minnesota’s diverse communities about how to provide equitable access to their constituents, which resulted in increased investment in ethnic media and access to hard copies of paper registration forms and applications.

Tuesday is the recommended last day to register to vote ahead of time and apply for an absentee ballot. On Thursday, Perez said his group will switch their messaging from absentee voting to early voting, in an effort to help voters reduce their potential exposure.

Minnesota’s goal should be to meet new citizens where they’re at in order to increase their participation in the democratic process, said Annastacia Belladonna Carrera, who leads the Minnesota chapter of Common Cause, a nonpartisan pro-democracy organization.

“I think that the way it’s set up now, kind of takes us almost to the river,” she said. “But then there’s this big old fence when you get to the river, right, and the horse can’t drink even though the horse is thirsty as hell, and they can’t drink.”

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