Bilingual Ballots and the Voting Rights Act

While some states and counties must have bilingual ballots, others don't. The languages also vary.

In the United States, the right to vote is one of the fundamental aspects of democracy. This right ensures that every U.S. citizen is given a voice in shaping the country's future.

Acknowledging the diverse population in the U.S., the government implemented multilingual and bilingual ballots. The aim is to break the language barrier and defend Americans' right to vote. This approach aligns with the spirit of the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It also reflects the government's commitment to making voting accessible to all, regardless of language proficiency.

This article looks into the legal foundations of multilingual ballots under the Voting Rights Act. It emphasizes the importance of ensuring that all eligible U.S. citizens can take part in the country's democratic process. This right is protected regardless of the voters' English proficiency.

When Does the Federal Government Require Bilingual Ballots?

The 1975 amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) put the requirement for bilingual ballots in place. Congress incorporated the language minority provision in Section 203 of the act. But it only applies to "covered jurisdictions" determined by the Census Bureau.

With the reauthorization of the VRA, certain political subdivisions and states were required to give language help during elections. This is to aid language minority voters who cannot speak or understand English enough to take part in the voting process.

Section 203 covers the following language minority groups that speak:

  • American Indian
  • Alaska Native
  • Asian
  • Spanish

Note that the determinations on every state or county follow certain computations thresholds.

  • If the proportion of voting-age citizens with limited English proficiency is over 5% or
  • If there are more than 10,000 voting-age citizens with limited English proficiency and
  • The voting-age population's English proficiency and education level rate is below fifth grade, which is above the national illiteracy rate.

Then, the jurisdiction falls under the protection for the language minority group outlined by Section 203 of the VRA.

Voting Ballot Languages

The Census Bureau determines the number of places required to provide multilingual ballots and other election materials every five years.

In December 2021, the Census data listed 331 jurisdictions that met the threshold. Here, election officials must have voting materials in different languages. The Census released the data before the 2022 midterm elections. This is, by far, the largest number of jurisdictions covered by the Section 203 provisions. Sixty-eight higher than in the data released in 2016.

Most of these jurisdictions are counties and municipalities, but three are states: California, Florida, and Texas. Any election materials issued statewide in those three states 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.

The Census Bureau listed seven covered languages within the Asian American category:

  1. Asian Indian
  2. Bangladeshi
  3. Cambodian
  4. Chinese (including Taiwanese)
  5. Korean
  6. Filipino
  7. Vietnamese

Five Native American languages:

  1. Apache
  2. Choctaw
  3. Navajo
  4. Pueblo
  5. Ute

Four Alaskan Native languages:

  • Alaska Athabascan
  • Aleut
  • Inupiat
  • Yup'ik

While most jurisdictions on the census data must provide materials for one language group, some diverse urban areas have several. For instance, Los Angeles County, California, must provide translations to a few groups:

  1. Cambodian
  2. Chinese (including Taiwanese)
  3. Filipino
  4. Hispanic
  5. Korean
  6. Vietnamese

Note that the list is not exclusive. The rules may vary depending on the local election requirements and county demographic changes. It is always best to check your county clerk's office for updated information on available language help.

State Laws for Bilingual Ballots

Some states have enacted stronger laws to bolster the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires translation for some language groups. California, for instance, requires precincts to provide translations to language groups that comprise 3% or more of their population instead of the federal 5% minimum in a qualified category. The election officials should also 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. The federal court ruling in 2019 marked a significant development. The federal court mandated 32 counties to have Spanish-language sample ballots before the 2020 primary elections. This court order aimed to accommodate the growing Hispanic population in Florida. It also emphasized the importance of ensuring that all eligible voters can take part in the electoral process regardless of the language barrier.

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 in English must also be in the qualified minority language. This covers not only ballots but also the following:

  • Sample ballots
  • Absentee ballots
  • Voter registration
  • Instructional forms
  • Polling place notices
  • Election information pamphlets

The Voting Rights Act also requires bilingual poll workers, interpreters, and trained election personnel to provide spoken information to non-English speaking voters.

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. That was one of the arguments used by "English only" or "Official English" proponents. It can be surprising to many that the U.S. doesn't have an official language. Although many legislative efforts have tried to establish English as the official language, none have succeeded.

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

Opponents 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.

You Don't Have To Solve This on Your Own — Seek Legal Advice

Understanding the complex provisions of the VRA for multilingual ballots can be challenging. If you believe your right to vote is compromised, or if you are a language minority voter looking to secure your right to vote, consulting a civil rights attorney can help. An experienced civil rights attorney can offer the guidance you need to represent your interests. They can help you navigate the complex legal landscape of election laws and protect your rights. Contact a civil rights attorney to protect your voting rights.

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