Amid concerns over the rollback of the Voting Rights Act and introduction of voter ID laws, election watchdogs worry about another critical voting rights issue: language barriers faced by limited English proficient (LEP) voters. For people who don’t speak English as their first language, language barriers can be a significant hurdle to voting. Difficulty understanding registration forms, ballots and other voting materials for LEP voters such as recently-naturalized citizens may discourage them from turning out to the polls. In 1975, Congress acknowledged the barriers an English-only voting process created and amended the Voting Rights Act to require certain jurisdictions to provide bilingual materials and translation support to voters. Under Section 203, jurisdictions — usually counties — where a certain level of a language minority are LEP and have an illiteracy rate higher than the national average must provide translated voting materials and an interpreter at the polls.
Section 203 applies to Latino, Asian, Native American and Alaska Native language minorities and covers counties largely in the West, the Southwest and major metros as well as Hawaii and Alaska. In the South, few counties outside of Texas and Florida are covered, but those include Fairfax County in Virginia and several counties in Mississippi that are home to the Choctaw Indian tribe. On the other hand, a diverse immigrant hub like Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, is required to provide translated voting materials in Chinese, Spanish and Vietnamese.
LEP voters in jurisdictions not covered by Section 203 are also able to access the ballot through another VRA provision that allows them to bring an interpreter with them to the polls. Section 208 was added in 1982 and allows voters who need assistance due to blindness, disability or inability to read or write to bring someone of their own choosing to help them cast a ballot. The measure also applies to those who face language barriers, although the specifics of the law vary by state.