Posted on May 20, 2014

Foreign Languages at Polling Stations ‘Threat to Democracy’

Matthew Holehouse, Telegraph (London), April 30, 2014

The “integrity of the ballot box” is under threat because councils are allowing interpreters in polling stations, a minister has said.

Voters who do not speak English are at risk of being pressured or influenced by translators, undermining local democracy, Brandon Lewis said.

It follows allegations of “remarkable swings” to Labour in recent elections in Tower Hamlets, East London, in cases where it is claimed Bengali interpreters wrongly directed people on how to vote.

Mr Lewis, the local government minister, said council officials, the police and the public are unable to scrutinise the electoral process if officials are speaking to voters in a foreign language.

He told the Commons: “In light of previous instances of electoral fraud, including impersonation in polling stations, postal voting irregularities and allegations of improper influence, Ministers in this department have concerns about the practice of allowing foreign language translators or interpreters inside polling stations.

“The privacy of the ballot must be protected and voters inside a polling station should not be subject to any pressure or influence to vote in a particular way.

“In that context, the integrity of the ballot box and of the local democratic process requires independent and transparent scrutiny in polling stations by polling agents, council staff, the police and, indeed, passing members of the public who are also voting.

“This is undermined by polling room administration being conducted in foreign languages.”

The Electoral Commission has been urged by local Conservatives to block returning officers in Tower Hamlets from using interpreters for May’s local and European elections.

The council plans to put a Bengali speaker in every polling station in May, as Bangladeshis are the single largest ethnic group in the Borough at 32 per cent of the population.

Cllr Peter Golds, the leader of the Conservative group, claimed a council-employed translator had instructed Bengali women to support Ken Livingstone in the 2008 mayoral election and had checked ballot papers after they had voted to ensure it was “correct”.

Certain wards saw “remarkable swings” where translators were employed, Cllr Golds alleged in a letter to the Electoral Commission sent earlier this month. There is no suggestion Mr Livingstone was aware of any wrong-doing.

“The use of minority languages in polling stations prevents presiding officers and anyone else including election officials and other voters who does not speak a particular language from knowing whether the advice given is appropriate or is an attempt to influence the voter.

“It will be extremely difficult to know whether the interpreters are informing or advising the electors they are assisting,” he said.

A council spokesperson said staff working as translators may only “explain” the voting process, and are banned from highlighting any particular candidate. If explaining the content of the ballot paper they are obliged to translate the entire sheet.

Ministers have urged councils to stop translating into foreign languages because it discourages communities from learning English and is a poor use of public money.