HLP Associate in Research Leads Ballot Curing Effort

When a student in the Elections in a Pandemic Bass Connections project pointed out a frustrating language barrier for absentee voting in North Carolina, Hart Leadership Program Associate in Research Ana Ramirez knew she needed to take action. It was mid-September and mail-in voting was already underway—but despite the fact that North Carolina voters could register to vote and file absentee ballot requests in Spanish, the actual ballot itself was only printed in English. Thousands of North Carolinians whose primary language is Spanish did not have access to voting materials that they could understand.

Ramirez, a Duke alumna and cofounder of Duke’s chapter of Define American, a student immigrant advocacy organization, knew that something had to be done. The precise rules to fill out a mail-in ballot are confusing enough in English, so adding a language barrier to the mix complicates everything further. People might try to use Google Translate or other online services to understand their ballots, but “there’s just more room for error,” Ramirez said. “One tiny mistake and it gets spoiled.” Ramirez, along with her fellow Define American cofounder and Duke alumnus Axel Herrera Ramos and Hart Leadership Program Director Gunther Peck, created an initiative to reach out to voters who identified themselves as Hispanic or Latinx to make sure that their votes would get counted. With a little outreach to Duke students, the Spanish Ballot Curing Project was underway.

Over 20 student volunteers signed up “pretty much overnight” to help cure ballots—including many Political Engagement Project (PEP) fellows and other Hart students. Herrera Ramos combed through voter records to find the names and contact information for Hispanic- or Latinx-identifying voters, and after a few training sessions, students began making phone calls. Ramirez stressed that the individuals the program contacted were people who had already “made an effort to vote” and that the nonpartisan project was not meant to “get out the vote” but rather to make sure votes that had already been cast were counted properly.

Since the election was so close at hand, “there was this sense of urgency,” Ramirez recalls. The project quickly expanded to include Mecklenburg County, Guilford County, and others—but they found the biggest challenge in Wake County, where the Board of Elections does not keep phone numbers—only home addresses. Ramirez and her team connected with Durham Drives, a grassroots organization which provided transportation for voters to and from the polls. Many Durham Drives volunteers drove out to Wake County and knocked on the doors of registered Hispanic and Latinx voters to assist in ballot curing and answer any voting-related questions.

Ultimately, this project was very successful and helped many people to cast and/or cure their ballots in time to be counted. Though Ramirez herself is a DACA recipient and cannot vote, she emphasized the importance of civic participation. “Every vote counts,” she said, “look at Georgia!” By working to make sure North Carolina’s Spanish-speaking population had their voices heard, Ramirez and the other coordinators and volunteers with the Spanish Ballot Curing Project helped to create a more just democracy.