In the run-up to the 2012 elections, the federal government is ordering that 248 counties and other political jurisdictions provide bilingual ballots to Hispanics and other minorities who speak little or no English. That number is down from a decade ago following the 2000 census, which covered 296 counties in 30 states. In all, more than 1 in 18 jurisdictions must now provide foreign-language assistance in pre-election publicity, voter registration, early voting and absentee applications as well as Election Day balloting.
The latest requirements, mandated under the Voting Rights Act, partly reflect second and third generations of racial and ethnic minorities who are now reporting higher levels of proficiency in English than their parents. Still, analysts cite a greater potential for resistance from localities that face tighter budgets, new laws requiring voter IDs at polls and increased anti-immigration sentiment.
Effective this week, Hispanics who don’t speak English proficiently will be entitled to Spanish-language election material in urban areas of political battleground states including Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and Utah, as well as the entire states of California, Florida and Texas. For the first time, people from India will get election material in their native language, in voting precincts in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, due to their fast population growth.
More American Indian tribal languages will be made available in many parts of Alaska, Arizona and Mississippi, while Vietnamese and Taiwanese will get their own voting assistance in several new areas, including parts of Washington state, Texas, Massachusetts and California. Asian Bangladeshi must be provided for the first time in Hamtramck, Mich, which neighbors Detroit.
“We would like to be in a society where everyone has equal opportunities to vote, but that’s not the reality we’re living in today,” said James Thomas Tucker, a former Justice Department attorney who is now a voting rights lawyer in Las Vegas. Tucker said the law has been key in the election of new Hispanic and Asian officials in many places, even as he noted that a vocal English-only language movement and new budget constraints on local governments could stir fresh tensions.
“Some jurisdictions will see pushback,” he said.