The purest form of participation in democracy is voting. It is a right given to every citizen by our Constitution, both naturalized and natural-born. To protect this right, courts have struck numerous barriers to voting — like literacy tests, property ownership requirements, and poll taxes — declaring them unconstitutional. Voting is fundamental – period.
Further, Congress has passed a number of provisions that protect the right to vote. From the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the Help America Vote Act of 2002, Congress has instituted a number of provisions to make voting more accessible for all people. Importantly, when amending the Voting Rights Act in 1975, Congress added protections for minority language citizens, requiring that if more than 10,000 or over 5 percent of the total voting age population within a single political subdivision are members of a minority language population, election administrators must offer voting-related materials in that language. As Congress said, “through the use of various practices and procedures, citizens of language minorities have been effectively excluded from participation in the electoral process….The Congress declares that, in order to enforce the guarantees of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, it is necessary to eliminate such discrimination by prohibiting these practices.”
By requiring voting-related materials in specific languages, our elections are more accessible for everyone. According to Governing Magazine, in the United States, one in five people speak a language other than English; out of that population, 42 percent of those 15 or older claim difficulty in understanding English. And yet, in jurisdictions all across the country, voters encounter problems with language assistance. In Florida, Asian-American outreach groups cited language as the biggest barrier to registering voters in their communities. In Utah, closing a local polling location caused Navajo Indians to revert to voting by mail, where ballots were provided only in English. Most recently in Texas, a federal court struck down a law limiting language assistance at the polls.
All citizens, whether newly-naturalized or just limited in their ability to speak English, deserve the chance to participate in their country’s electoral process. The most common argument against minority-language ballot assistance is that it allows voters to vote on issues they may not fully understand. However, including materials in other languages is not about getting around legal requirements to vote nor does it allow naturalized citizens to vote on issues they don’t understand – it’s about helping all people become more informed voters. It also helps protect these voters from improper restrictions on their vote, such as being asked for an ID when it is not required.
Beyond the constitutional implications, there are practical reasons for requiring election language assistance. Polling locations are busy and hectic and it is easy to get caught in the chaos. Am I in the right polling place? Which line should I stand in to update my address? It can be confusing even if you speak English fluently – can you imagine if you don’t?
By providing election materials in other languages, there is less confusion at the polls, resulting in shorter lines and fewer phone calls from poll workers to county election officials. By requiring less staff to answer calls and work polling locations, smoother elections result in saved taxpayer dollars — not to mention the money saved in avoiding a potential lawsuit.
The most inclusive election administrators go beyond the statutory requirements; rather, effective communication of voting information includes translating ALL materials into other languages – including information on how one could register a new voter. Anyone who wants to register voters in Texas must attend a state-mandated training. And that is why, for the first time in its history, the Harris County Voter Registrar (the Houston-area) offered its first volunteer deputy voter registrar training in Spanish. It ensures better compliance with the law and is one step in the direction of more inclusion in our electorate. Moreover, not only will the office continue to provide Spanish trainings, but the staff is in the process of translating the same training into traditional Chinese and Vietnamese. In Harris County, the voter registration team is dedicated to registering every eligible voter in Harris County - including our diverse population of non-native English speakers.
Every single day, laws are passed that directly affect minority language populations. And not just overtly polarizing laws, such as “show your papers” legislation or the Chinese Exclusion Act, or the order allowing Japanese Internment, but simple, non-controversial laws. Laws that determine the number of students allowed per classroom or how your child’s school is funded. Laws that fix potholes and dig drainage ditches, or, as Leslie Knope so lovingly showed us, whether there is a neighborhood park for your child to play in. These laws apply equally to everyone and your voice should not be determined by language. I cannot think of anything more “American” than to allow everyone to participate in the process and shape the future you envision, no matter the language you do it in.
Curious how your state fares in election language assistance? Check out our Scorecard! You can also contact your local elections officials and state legislature to advocate on behalf of voter assistance laws.