This new app takes on language barriers crippling the Asian American vote

Voter VOX will connect human translators to voters with limited English.

The upcoming app VoterVOX aims to help translate ballots for English-limited voters and push forward the historically quiet Asian Pacific American vote in time for the 2016 elections.

“The basic function is to match a voter with a volunteer, and to give the volunteer the tools they need to successfully translate the ballot into the voter’s native language,” Cayden Mak, 18 Million Rising’s chief technical officer, explained. VoterVOX will archive these translated materials so other volunteers can use and build on them.

While Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires districts to provide translated ballots where there is a [certain threshold] of voters, many Asian Pacific American communities don’t meet that number.

“So there might be 10,000 AAs in a jurisdiction, but there are four or five different language groups there,” Mak said. “Now a lot of counties are off the hook and don’t have to provide translations.”

Even when jurisdictions are legally required to make translations available, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund has found that they often don’t.

“Even if the law requires it, terrifyingly, almost half the time they don’t provide the tools that voters need in order to vote in their language,” Mak said. “It’s very clear there’s a failure of the law — they’re concerned about a certain number of citizens. Well, we’re concerned about making sure every single person has the opportunity to vote.”

18 Million Rising began a crowdfunding campaign in August to raise $50,000 for both app development and community organizing. With just a day left in their campaign, they’ve funded about 10 percent of their goal.

Mak — who agreed to get a tongue-in-cheek “Anchor Baby” tattoo if VoterVOX reached its full goal — isn’t too worried, though.

“There’s been such an outpouring of support from various centers in our community. Community-based organizations are pumped about it,” Mak says. They says they’re confident 18 Million Rising will come up with the funds to start moving forward in about a month. “Right now we’re trying to get to a position that we can build a prototype and test it with real humans.”

By this fall, 18 Million Rising plans to roll out an app prototype in limited markets to gauge functionality and user experience. A full-featured tool will arrive in time for the national elections in 2016.

“The big challenge is actually less of a technical challenge and more of an organizing challenge,” Mak, who’s based in L.A., says. “Connecting with limited English proficient voters who need help is a big ongoing project.” Since 18 Million Rising doesn’t plan to take VoterVOX offline after the presidential election, the only obstacle to use in later state and local elections is whether it can develop an organizing structure on the ground.

The VoterVox development team

It’s a harder task than it sounds — a few well-placed tweets are hardly sufficient to microtarget the diverse Asian and Pacific Island language communities VoterVOX aims to help.

Mak points to Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s Taz Ahmed, who runs voter helplines in L.A. in 17 languages.

“One of the things we’ve been hearing from our 80 grassroots partners over and over again since the midterms last year is that we know that language access is an issue,” Mak says. “But we don’t have the resources to scale solutions to it.”

VoterVOX works as a force multiplier, so community organizers don’t need to meet every single English-limited voter and walk them through their ballots themselves.

The technology is not enough, Mak says: Voters must fully understand their rights, and need direct access to the mechanics of voting. “Literally, can they get to their polling place? Can they get a mail-in ballot?” Mak asks.

Ultimately, it’s only humans — hundreds of them — that can provide such service.

“It’s the combination of grassroots organizing and technology that needs to become one and do that crazy, amazing alchemy that happens when you have a great tech tool and really smart organizers working together to solve big problems.”

Originally published Sept. 18, 2015.