About 8.3% of the US speaks English less than “very well,” according to the US Census Bureau. These Americans face greater challenges participating in the electoral process.
Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was added in 1975 to increase voting accessibility for non-English speakers that have been historically excluded from the political process. It targets Spanish, Asian, Native American, and Alaskan Native languages. In eligible localities, it requires all elections to provide translated ballots and election information in other languages.
While this section of the Voting Rights Act improved election access for non-English speakers, how it works in practice means many are still left out of the process.
Section 203 covers localities that meet two criteria:
These determinations are made with Census data for Hispanic/Latino, American Indian/Alaskan Native, and Asian race and ethnicity groups.
But this process excludes some communities with limited English skills. For example, immigrants from North Africa who primarily speak Arabic (and are marked white on the Census) or immigrants from Haiti who primarily speak Creole (marked African American on the Census) would not be covered under Section 203. The Census Bureau is actively researching the inclusion of “Middle Eastern or North African” as a separate racial response category, but the official Standards of Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity have not been revised since 1997.
Spanish is the most covered language under section 203. Three states and 194 other counties in the US require ballots to be provided in Spanish. The next most common languages provided throughout the US are Chinese, Vietnamese, Navajo, Choctaw, and Filipino. Twenty states and Washington, DC do not have any localities that are required to provide non-English voting materials.
The seven counties with the most languages covered under Section 203 are all in California. Los Angeles County had the highest, with six languages meeting the threshold under the Voting Rights Act: Spanish, Khmer, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Vietnamese.
In addition, five states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin) have minor civil divisions that are required to provide non-English ballots.
In order to comply with Section 203, localities must provide translated written materials and provide oral translations as well. The Justice Department specifies that “bilingual poll workers will be essential.”
But there are multiple examples of localities ending up in court over whether they followed Section 203.
In Gwinnett County, Georgia, where Spanish ballots are required under the Voting Rights Act, election officials only provided absentee ballot applications in English. In 2022, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this did not violate the Voting Right Act because the absentee ballot application was provided by the state, not the county election administrators.
In Texas, Senate Bill 1 restricted how much translators could help non-English speakers vote. It only allowed direct translations and banned clarifying questions on the ballot’s content. This law was passed in 2021 but was struck down by a federal judge in June 2022.
Since 2000, the Department of Justice has sued 36 localities for failing to comply with language accessibility requirements.
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. However, Asian and Hispanic voters consistently have the lowest turnout among racial groups in the US, indicating that language may continue to be a barrier to voting.
In 2020, about 54% of Hispanic citizens and about 60% of Asian citizens voted. In comparison, about 63% of Black citizens and about 71% of white non-Hispanic citizens voted, according to data from the Census.
Because of the minimum threshold needed to qualify under Section 203, many Americans who do not speak English very well are not provided ballots in their native language. These Americans have the option of bringing an interpreter to the voting booth, such as a friend or family member.
Some localities also provide additional support beyond what is federally mandated. California has lowered the threshold for providing translated election materials. Beginning in 2022, Colorado’s Multilingual Ballot Access for Voter bill also increased the number of multilingual translators and interpreters for non-English speakers. In New York City, the Civic Engagement Commission provides language assistance in 11 additional languages at selected poll sites.
Of the 20 states with no requirements to provide ballots in a language other than English, Oregon and Delaware had the highest proportion of residents who spoke English “less than very well” at 5.4%. West Virginia had the lowest at 0.5%. These citizens are not given federal assistance to understand their ballot or how to vote.
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