Bilingual Ballots and the Voting Rights Act

Multilingual and bilingual ballots are ballots that are translated into different languages, allowing non-English-speaking citizens to confidently cast their vote. While some states and counties are required to have bilingual ballots, others are not. The languages required on bilingual ballots also vary depending on the location.

A bilingual ballot requirement was put in place by the 1975 amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was meant to help rectify the "history of exclusion from the political process" of Latinos, Asian Americans, American Indians, and Alaska Natives.

When Does the Federal Government Require Bilingual Ballots?

The federal government requires jurisdictions (cities, counties, states, etc.) to provide multilingual ballots when a single-language group in that location numbers more than 10,000 individuals or is more than 5% of the voting-age population. It must also have an illiteracy rate that is higher than the national illiteracy rate.

The number of places required to provide multilingual ballots and other election materials is determined by the Census Bureau every five years. In December 2016, 263 jurisdictions in 29 states were subject to the requirement.

The vast majority of these jurisdictions are counties and municipalities, but three are states: California, Florida, and Texas. In those three states, any election materials issued statewide must include Spanish translations. But cities and counties are exempt from the requirement if they don't have the minimum number of people from an eligible language group.

Voting Ballot Languages

The December 2016 Census Bureau report lists 17 "language minority groups" that qualify for ballot translations. While "Hispanic" is the sole language for the Latino category, the other three categories contain multiple languages. Seven are recognized within the Asian American category (Asian Indian, Bangladeshi, Cambodian, Chinese [including Taiwanese], Korean, Filipino, and Vietnamese). There are five American Indian languages that are covered (Apache, Choctaw, Navajo, Pueblo, and Ute), and four Alaska Natives languages (Alaska Athabascan, Aleut, Inupiat, and Yup'ik).

While most jurisdictions on the Census list need to provide materials for one language group, some diverse urban areas have several. Los Angeles County, California, for instance, is required to provide translations to six groups: Cambodian, Chinese (including Taiwanese), Filipino, Hispanic, Korean, and Vietnamese.

State Laws for Bilingual Ballots

Some states have enacted stronger laws to buttress the federal Voting Rights Act in requiring translations for some language groups. California, for instance, requires precincts to provide translations to language groups that comprise just 3% or more of their population (instead of the federal 5% minimum) in a qualified category and to make a "good faith effort" to recruit bilingual poll workers to help those groups on Election Day.

Florida's bilingual ballots have a very different history. Florida needed the prodding of a federal court order in 2019 to provide Spanish-language sample ballots in 32 counties in time for the March 2020 primary elections.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled in favor of plaintiffs who argued that an influx of an estimated 30,000 Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria deserved a right to vote in their language. The plaintiffs focused on a section of the Voting Rights Act that provides voting rights to people who were educated in schools where the predominant language was not English.

What's Translated Besides Ballots

In addition to providing translated ballots, what else are election officials in these jurisdictions supposed to provide?

According to the U.S. Justice Department, all information that is provided in English must also be provided in the qualified minority language. This covers not only ballots, but also sample ballots, absentee ballots, voter registration, instructional forms, polling place notices, and voter information pamphlets

The Voting Rights Act also requires that information be provided orally by bilingual poll workers and by trained personnel who can provide information in courthouses and city halls.

Should Ballots Be Multilingual?

Not everyone agreed with the Voting Rights Act and the requirements for multilingual ballots. The requirements mean added expense for these jurisdictions — and that's one of the arguments used by "English only" or "Official English" proponents. It can be surprising to many that the United States doesn't have an official language, and there have been numerous legislative efforts to establish English as the official language of the land, none of them successful.

Proponents of "English only" would encourage non-English speakers to learn English and better participate in democracy and progress economically. In addition, they contend, it would reduce government translation costs.

Opponents, however, argue that it would contradict the country's long-held values as a country of immigrants. If linguistic minorities don't have the same right to government services in their native languages, they contend, it would be discrimination.