Fairfax County is putting its technology prowess to work for its new immigrants on Election Day.
This year for the first time, thousands of voters whose first language is Korean, Spanish or Vietnamese will hear instructions in those tongues on how to use the county's touch-screen voting machines when they go to the polls. The voices of native speakers will be broadcast all day long in a new, 90-second instructional video on televisions at polling places across the county.
"If there are lines at the polls, people will take a minute standing in line and watch it, so when they go into the voting booth it won't be a surprise," said Margaret K. Luca, secretary of the county Board of Elections, who worked with engineers at Fairfax's cable channel to make the videos.
The ballots themselves will be in English, since the county's largest minority group, its Hispanic population, has not reached a number to warrant ballots in Spanish, too. But new Americans, like tens of thousands of native English speakers, will record their choices for president, vice president, Congress, county bonds and constitutional questions this year by touching a screen.
The touch-screen technology debuted last year, when turnout was only about 35 percent. Election officials expect turnout to exceed 80 percent on Nov. 2. And voters need to learn how to use the new technology.
"The minority groups are growing so fast, and they don't all speak English well," said Young Kim, a Korean immigrant who lives in Annandale and is president of the Korean-American Association of Greater Washington. "We are trying to raise the number of Koreans voting. . . . They definitely need some native language to let them know how to use the machines."
Kim estimates that 10,000 Koreans in Fairfax are eligible to vote in the presidential election. Community groups like his held registration drives this fall, but he said it is impossible to know how many are registered.
Luca and her staff members are reaching out to immigrants in other ways. They are also searching for bilingual poll workers. Of the 2,250 election officers hired so far, about 5 percent speak other languages, she said.
The video, which is also streamed onto the county's Web site, was launched last year with the new machines in English. Luca began hearing from election officers that making it multilingual would benefit the county's growing immigrant communities. She consulted the staff at Channel 16, who hired native Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese speakers to record voiceovers with the identical instructions.
"It was a broadcasting talent search," Luca said.
The video, dubbed "Touch the Future," goes something like this: A man touches a computer screen. His ballot appears. A red "X" confirms his vote for one candidate or ballot question. A flashing screen means that there are more selections to be made. The voter is instructed that he can change selections, or decide to skip some altogether. To get to the next screen, the voter presses "Next."
The video went on the air last week, in public service announcements on Telemundo, the Spanish-language television station, the Korean Broadcasting Network and three Vietnamese stations, all in the Washington area. Luca said she has asked station managers to play it as often as possible.
The video will be available in areas with heavy concentrations of newcomers, including Baileys Crossroads, Annandale and Herndon.
It will play continuously on Election Day, changing from one language to the next, then repeating the loop.
"You may have to stand there for four minutes before you get your language, but you'll get it," Luca said.