Non-English Speaking Voters Continue to Face Hurdles: Report Finds Barriers Remain Despite Federal Protections

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Washington, DC- In the 21 years since Congress first amended the Voting Rights Act to ensure access to ballots for non-English speakers, the electoral process has been opened up to hundreds of thousands of voters.

As a new report from electionline.org reveals, however, local election officials continue to grapple with how to implement the requirements while lawmakers in some states - and in Congress - continue to try and circumvent or eliminate them.

"Voting is an intensely personal issue," said Doug Chapin, electionline.org's director. "Therefore, it isn't surprising that voters want their election officials to make election materials available in a language they can easily understand."

Section 203, the Minority Language Provision of the Voting Rights Act, stipulates that ballots, other election materials and assistance at the polls must be offered in some voting jurisdictions with large populations of voters who do have limited English proficiency.

This past summer, section 203 survived a somewhat contentious renewal process when a group of Republican lawmakers sought to strip it from the Voting Rights Act. Eventually, it was approved, but challenges to the section - and difficulties in implementation persist, the report indicates.

Finding bilingual poll workers and registering new citizens to vote has relied on the help of non-governmental organizations. Lawsuits in Boston and Springfield, Mass. by the U.S. Department of Justice were filed after both municipalities lacked necessary assistance for voters who did not speak English, spurring enforcement in the form of monitoring for the November election and perhaps beyond.

Web sites, while not explicitly required to offer voter or election information in languages other than English, have expanded opportunities to find multi-lingual materials. The study found 31 states offer some information on Web sites in languages other than English, primarily Spanish (29 states). The District of Columbia and Kentucky have Web sites that can translate information into multiple languages.

But materials are not always readily available.

English-only laws enacted in Utah have challenged section 203, as state officials have questioned whether the provision on the books in the state trump Voting Rights Act requirements for materials in Spanish in some jurisdictions. In California, a court is deciding whether voter-led petitions for state initiatives fall under section 203.

And in an atmosphere of increased concern over immigration and the rights of new Americans, challenges will continue, despite the extension of the language provision for another 25 years.

"While the Voting Rights Act and specifically section 203 overcame opposition to renewal rather easily, there are some in Congress who were, and continue to be, opposed to the federal government mandating that jurisdictions offer non-English language voting materials," said M. Mindy Moretti, senior writer with electionline.org. "And some state lawmakers have similarly shown support for 'English-only' provisions for government communications with citizens, revealing what could be a potential future legal battle over section 203 requirements."

Electionline.org is the nation's leading nonpartisan, non-advocacy organization researching, analyzing and reporting on election administration and reform. It is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts with a grant administered by the University of Richmond.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit electionline.org.

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