Almost three years after Mallika Das, a naturalized citizen who spoke Bengali, was unable to vote properly because she was not proficient in English, Texas lawmakers are considering a change to an obscure provision of Texas election law regarding language interpreters. Members of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday took up Senate Bill 148 by Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston, which would repeal a section of the state’s election code that requires interpreters to be registered voters in the same county in which they are providing help. The measure will ensure that voters are able “to meaningfully and effectively exercise their vote,” Garcia told the committee. “This ensures that voters have the capacity to navigate polling stations, communicate with election officers and understand how to fill out required forms and answer questions directed at them by any election officer.”
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.
Lyutvi Mestan, Chair of the Bulgarian ethnic Turkish party Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), has vowed to appeal the fine he was imposed by the local election administration in Sliven for addressing his constituents in Turkish. The fine was imposed Friday by the Regional Electoral Commission in the southeastern city of Sliven on a tip-off from center-right party GERB reporting that Mestan had addressed voters in Turkish during an election campaign rally in the village of Yablanovo on May 5. Yablanovo Mayor Dzhemal Choban was also penalized by the Regional Electoral Commission in Sliven for addressing voters in Turkish during the same rally. Bulgaria’s Election Code does not allow election campaigns to be conducted in other languages than Bulgarian.
In an election year where just a handful of votes could sway a tight election, some states are enacting laws to make it more difficult for citizens to vote. Voter identification laws have been passed or modified in 10 states since 2010 when Republicans made big gains in national politics through the Tea Party movement. Critics say these voter ID laws disproportionately affect voters who come from traditional minority communities.Although much attention has been given to African American and Latino voters these laws may have an even greater affect on Asian American voters. Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law is being challenged on just that idea. Due to the diversity of language, foreign name structure and customs, voter rolls are frequently fraught with clerical errors that could cause legally registered voters to be turned away at the polls.
The Florida Legislature’s legal team has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to begin the process of reviewing its legislative maps for compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, even before the Florida Supreme Court signs off on a final product. In a March 30 letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, lawyers for the House, Senate and attorney general asked the federal government to expedite its a pre-clearance of the maps so that candidates will know the district boundaries when they are required to qualify during the week the June 4. Under the Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, Florida must submit its legislative and congressional maps for approval, or pre-clearance, because five counties – Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe – have a history of discrimination against racial or language minorities. Download Preclearance_Senate
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Arizona filed a motion in a Washington, D.C. federal court today to intervene in the state of Arizona’s challenge to the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). The ACLU argues that Section 5 of the Act, which since 1965 has protected racial and language minorities’ access to voting, must remain in place.
“Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is critical for ensuring that states do not pass election laws that negatively affect minority voters,” said Katie O’Connor, staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “We are intervening in this case to make sure that this critical piece of legislation is upheld, so that everyone’s fundamental right to vote is protected.”
DuPage County is one of dozens of jurisdictions across the country ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice to make their elections more accessible to people who lack English proficiency, officials said.
In DuPage, that means the election commission will print election materials in both English and Spanish for the first time. In addition, supplementary election materials will be printed in both languages, Spanish-speaking election judges will be hired in some precincts and the election commission will hire a full-time translator and liaison to Hispanic communities.
Rep. Mike Coffman’s intent to repeal the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act is not only ill-conceived but places the rights of millions of U.S. citizens in jeopardy.
In 1975, Congress expanded the Voting Rights Act by adding language assistance amendments. The effort was spearheaded by Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn. Congress added Sections 203 and 4(f) to provide targeted oral or written language assistance to American citizens of voting age who were not fluent in English after finding that the denial of the right to vote among limited English-proficient citizens was “directly related to the unequal educational opportunities afforded them, resulting in high illiteracy and low voting participation.” According to the 2000 Census, three-quarters of all voters covered by Section 203 were native-born, voting-age citizens.
Section 203, the part of the act that Coffman wants to remove, is based on the 14th and 15th Amendments, which guarantee “equal protection and the right to vote without regard to race, color, or previous conditions of servitude.” Consistent with our constitution, Section 203 “prohibits discriminatory practices and procedures that effectively exclude language minorities from participating in the electoral process and provides for appropriate remedies.”
Voting Blogs: As Minority Language Assistance Becomes More Common, A More Common Approach Makes Sense | PEEA
The Denver Post had a story this weekend about the likelihood that 16 counties in Colorado will soon be required to make ballots and other election materials available in Spanish.
These requirements will be driven by 2010 Census data and required by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 203 uses the Census data to identify jurisdictions in which the citizens voting age population in a single language group within the jurisdiction 1) is more than 10,000, OR 2) is more than five percent of all voting age citizens, OR 3) on an Indian reservation, exceeds five percent of all reservation residents AND the illiteracy rate of the group is higher than the national illiteracy rate.