Home / Government / Articles / How does the government help non-English speakers vote?

About 8.4% of the US speaks English less than “very well,” according to the Census Bureau in 2022. For otherwise-eligible voters, a lack of English proficiency can present a challenge to participating in the electoral process.

In 1975, Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act increased voting access for non-English speakers who had historically been excluded from the political process, with a focus on Spanish, Asian, Native American, and Alaskan Native language-speakers — but with particular requirements that mean that not every locality is required to comply.

Nationwide, thirty states are required to provide non-English voting materials in at least one locality. Of the twenty states not required to do so, Oregon and North Carolina had the highest proportion of residents who spoke English “less than very well” at 5.5% and 4.8%, respectively, and Washington, DC, had a rate of 5.1%. West Virginia (0.8%) and Montana (1.1%) had the lowest proportions of residents who spoke English “less than very well”.

Who is covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act?

Section 203 covers localities that meet two criteria:

  • More than 10,000 or over 5% of voting-age citizens in the state, county, or municipality must be “members of a single language minority group” with limited English proficiency. When the 5% criterion is met, ballots and election information must be made available in the second language state-wide: if 5.8% of a state’s population are Spanish speakers with limited English proficiency, all elections in the state must support Spanish, even in individual counties and cities that don’t meet the 5% threshold. The statewide coverage is only triggered by the 5% criteria; the 10,000-person threshold only mandates local second-language support.
  • The language minority must have depressed literacy rates. A “depressed literacy rate” means that a percentage of the language minority’s voting-age citizens with a fifth-grade education is lower than the national share.

These determinations use Census population data for Hispanic/Latino, American Indian/Alaskan Native, and Asian race and ethnicity groups. In other words, race and ethnicity data, in addition to response data from the American Community Survey, determines language access.

This can create gaps:  Immigrants from North Africa who primarily speak Arabic and are marked “white” on the Census or Haitian immigrants who primarily speak Creole and are marked “African American” on the Census would not be covered.

The Biden administration approved changes to the Census in March 2024 that will add a “Middle Eastern or North African” option, but this new race/ethnicity category will not necessarily extend to language assistance provisions under Section 203 unless people choosing this new category also belong to a specified language minority group.

The most common groups covered under Section 203 are:

  • Hispanic
  • Chinese (including Taiwanese)
  • Vietnamese
  • Choctaw
  • Navajo
  • Filipino

Counties or minor civil divisions (MCDs)[1] in thirty states require that ballots be translated into a language other than English, with Hispanic language-minority counties being the most-covered under Section 203.

Embed on your website

Of the 43 counties nationwide home to more than one language minority group, six are in California. As of the latest Section 203 determination in 2021, Los Angeles County had the most groups, with six meeting the thresholds: Cambodian, Chinese (including Taiwanese), Filipino, Hispanic, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Embed on your website

How well does Section 203 achieve voting accessibility for non-English speakers?

To comply with Section 203, localities must provide written translations of all election materials, including the ballot, voter registration, candidate information, polling place notices, sample ballots, instructional forms, voter information pamphlets, and absentee and regular ballots.

The Justice Department also emphasizes the need for bilingual poll workers to provide oral translation needs, and trained personnel who can answer questions in a language other than English.

Localities have been taken to court over their Section 203 compliance. Since 2000, the Justice Department has sued 36 localities for failing to comply with language accessibility requirements.

What can non-English speakers do if they are not covered by the Voting Rights Act?

For those who don’t speak English well but live in places that aren’t mandated to provide voting materials under Section 203, Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act allows them to bring an interpreter to the voting booth. The interpreter can be anyone, including a friend or family member, as long as they’re not associated with the voter’s employer or a member of the voter’s union.

Do states provide additional resources for non-English speakers beyond the Voting Rights Act?

Some localities provide additional support beyond what is federally mandated.

  • California has lowered the threshold for providing translated election materials. If 3% or more of the adults in an area speak mainly one language and struggle with English, the county must give them translated voting materials and instructions must be posted in a noticeable place the polling places.
  • Colorado’s 2002 Multilingual Ballot Access for Voter bill created a hotline with multilingual translators and interpreters for non-English speakers.
  • The New York City Civic Engagement Commission provides assistance in 11 non-English languages at selected poll sites.

What does the data miss?

The US government does not provide data about the number of ballots cast in a different language or voter turnout among citizens with lower English proficiency, so it’s unknown whether non-English language speakers vote at different rates than proficient English speakers.

Learn more about how voting laws differ by state and get the facts every week by signing up for our newsletter.

Section 203 Determinations Public Use Dataset
Last updated
Dec 8, 2021
[1]

Five states — Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin — have MCD’s that are required to provide non-English ballots.