Language access at the ballot box lags in a diversifying South

A white sign staked into the ground reads "VOTE HERE" and "VOTE AQUI" in blue letters. A red arrow printed on the sign points to the left and is stacked between the words. An American flag is also printed on the sign. A parking lot is visible on the far left of the image in the background.

(Photo by Erik Hersman via Flickr.)

In 1975, a group of Mexican Americans from Texas delivered testimony before Congress on their experiences with voting. 

Mobilized by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, they described facing discrimination and intimidation tactics at polling places, encountering a lack of assistance for individuals who did not speak English as their first language, and receiving voting materials printed solely in English. These barriers to voting translated to less political participation; in one Texas town, it's estimated that in 1975, less than half of eligible Latino voters were registered, compared to two-thirds of eligible white voters.  

Several months later, President Gerald Ford would sign into law amendments to the Voting Rights Act (VRA), mandating for the first time language access in the electoral process for members of language minority groups with limited English proficiency, including Spanish speakers. 

In 1980, just five years after the VRA was expanded, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that over 23 million people living in the United States spoke a language other than English at home. Today, that number has tripled

The South is the country's fastest-growing region, and in the last decade, several Southern states have seen significant jumps in the number of people that speak a language other than English at home. The country's population growth in the post-pandemic years is due in large part to immigration, and Southern states like Florida and Texas rank among the top states with the largest immigrant populations, the Pew Research Center noted in 2020

Still, of the 30 states containing jurisdictions that are covered under the VRA's language-access rules, only six are in the South. Per federal criteria, voting districts must meet specific thresholds in order to qualify for language assistance — thresholds which some voting rights advocates have asserted are too high.   

The language access provisions under Section 203 of the VRA were monumental for their time, laying out protections that had not previously existed and highlighting another form of disenfranchisement faced by voters. But in recent years, as the U.S. electorate becomes increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, gaps in the language access provisions have risen to the surface, from certain language groups that are entirely left out of protections to pushback against language assistance initiatives altogether.

At a time when voting rights provisions are being rolled back across the country and elected officials have pushed for English-only voting materials, language justice advocates underscore the importance of maintaining language access for limited-English proficiency voters — and highlight the gaps that remain.  

Meeting federal thresholds

Under the Voting Rights Act, a voting district or "jurisdiction" is required to provide ballots and election materials in languages other than English when there are:

  • Over 10,000 or over 5% of voting-age citizens who belong to the same language minority group and have limited proficiency in English AND
  • The illiteracy rate of the group in question is above the national average

If the proportion of voting-age citizens within the same language minority group is more than 5% of all residents on an Indian reservation, and the illiteracy rate is higher than the national average, the jurisdiction is also protected under federal law.

Under Section 203 of the VRA, American Indian, Asian, Latino, and Alaska Native language minorities qualify for language assistance. The data used to make determinations comes from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, and determinations are published every five years in the Federal Register.  

The last set of determinations was released in December 2021, listing over 330 jurisdictions in the U.S. that are required to provide language assistance for voting. The new designations mark the largest-ever increase of citizens who will have access to language assistance, according to Lantz McGinnis-Brown and Gabe Osterhout, two researchers from the Idaho Policy Institute at Boise State University. Between 2016 and 2021, the number of covered jurisdictions increased 26% — a significant jump from the years between 2011 and 2016, which only saw a 6% rise.

Increased access also usually means greater voter turnout. For example, research showed that Asian American voters saw a dramatic rise in political participation after a 1992 modification to the VRA formula used to determine language access protections; between 1996 and 2004, Asian American voter registration increased by 58.7%, while voter turnout increased by 71%. 

Voters with limited English proficiency represent a significant voting bloc. McGinnis-Brown and Osterhout note that between 2021 and 2016, the number of voting-age citizens who can receive multilingual election materials increased by more than 11 million people. 

"In previous elections, counties that offered non-English assistance have seen increased voting by language minority groups, especially for first-generation citizens," the researchers wrote in a 2021 analysis

Still, only a handful of Southern states are legally required to provide language access in elections under Section 203's qualifications. 

In Georgia, only Gwinnett County is covered, despite close to 15% of the state speaking a language other than English at home. The VRA does not require any counties in Arkansas to print ballots in additional languages, even though almost a third of its voting-age population who speak a language other than English reported speaking English "less than 'very well.'" The Arkansas Advocate previously reported on the challenges faced by non-English speaking citizens in casting their ballot. 

And North Carolina — which saw a 25% jump in its population of individuals who speak a language other than English at home over the last decade — has no protected jurisdictions in the state. The state Board of Elections did, however, launch a website in 2020 that can be translated into 15 languages besides English, and voter registration forms are available in Spanish. 

"The South is not the monolithic entity that people sort of historically think that it is — there are a lot of immigrants and linguistic minorities who live in the South," said Anar Parikh, a senior policy associate for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta. 

The political participation of voting-age citizens who speak a language other than English could mean the difference in competitive elections. In the 2020 election, President Donald Trump took North Carolina by a thin margin with 74,483 votes. In 2019, the number of voting-age North Carolinians living in a state without federally-mandated language assistance, but who might have needed it, sat at 128,318 people, according to a Facing South analysis of Census data.

Challenges ahead

Currently, three states — California, Florida, and Texas — provide Spanish-language assistance in the entire state, regardless of individual jurisdictions and their qualifications. While statewide language assistance is a boon, ensuring the accuracy of translation services is equally important. In 2019, Texas Public Radio found poorly Spanish-translated ballots in a vote on state constitutional amendments, with ballots in one county containing grammatical errors and confusing language. Ballots with inaccurate translations in Spanish also cropped up in Broward County, Florida — the state's second-most populous county — last year. 

Parikh, the senior policy associate for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, works primarily on issues of language access. In Georgia, she's seen a push for local municipalities to voluntarily provide language assistance and make up the difference when it comes to translation services in non-federally covered jurisdictions. 

"There's a lot of qualifiers around the number of people that must meet that threshold in order to trigger those protections," Parikh said. "And because of that, it makes it really hard for those protections to kick in, even though they exist as something that's supposed to acknowledge the barriers and potential disenfranchisement linguistic minorities face voting in elections."

While the Census Bureau's threshold can serve as one barrier to providing language access, another is the VRA's definition of language minority groups, Parikh said. For example, languages like Arabic and Haitian Creole are not covered by Section 203, which has posed issues for voters in states like Michigan, New York, and Florida. In the Sunshine State, Haitian Creole is the third-most spoken language, and in 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Miami-Dade County over its inadequate access of language assistance for Haitian Creole speakers.

Voters who aren't covered by Section 203 can bring an interpreter to the polls through another measure in the VRA, but state interpretations of the provision can vary. The measure, Section 208, was added in 1982, intending to protect voters with disabilities who require assistance participating in elections. 

Though bringing a translator to the polls is a federally protected right, the experiences of voters can prove more challenging. 

"The right to vote is the foundation of American democracy, and voting can be a complicated process for anyone," said Jimmy Patel-Nguyen, communications director for North Carolina Asian Americans Together, at a press conference at the state capitol held by N.C. democracy advocates in February. "For citizens whose first language isn't English, the process is even more difficult to navigate." 

In 2018, Korean American voters in Georgia also reported facing difficulties in bringing an interpreter to the polls as poll workers were unsure of whether to follow federal or state law around the issue. The state law required language interpreters to belong to the voter's own family or voting precinct, whereas federal law doesn't apply such restrictions. Georgia's secretary of state ultimately agreed not to enforce the state's language assistance law containing more restrictive guidelines, but confusion — and outright resistance — around language assistance provisions persists.

Earlier this summer, Morrow City Council Member Van Tran, a Vietnamese American woman, was decried as "un-American" by a fellow member of the Georgia city council for her attempts to increase language access and to petition a referendum for multilingual ballots in city elections. 

"There's this common misconception here in Georgia, and I think elsewhere, that it's illegal to make these materials available," Parikh said. "It's not illegal to translate election materials."

Parikh also highlights that language assistance protections in the VRA stem from the history of literacy tests and poll taxes waged against Black voters, which were intended to disenfranchise and limit political participation.

"I think knowing what the history of the South is, in terms of voting rights as well, and voter disenfranchisement is important," Parikh said. "Because that history is imminently connected to the contemporary history of language minority rights in the South; they're not two separate things, they're very much connected."

Advice for jurisdictions 

Miranda Galindo is the supervising counsel of voting rights for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, formerly the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. Her organization has advocated for language access in elections and has filed a number of successful lawsuits on the issue over the years. 

It should be in the interest of all politicians to increase access to translation services and other language assistance, Galindo said.

"Helping more voters be able to vote, increasing turnout is nonpartisan," Galindo said. "Every single politician should be championing this for constituents."

Last year, Rep. Nikema Williams (D), who represents Georgia's 5th Congressional district centered around Atlanta, introduced the Expanding the VOTE Act in Congress, which would have provided funding for jurisdictions that didn't meet federal threshold requirements and called for a study on the impacts of expanding language minorities to include native Arabic, Haitian Creole, and French speakers. At the time, however, conservatives falsely alleged that Democratic lawmakers were intending to allow non-citizens to vote. 

Williams recently reintroduced the bill as part of a package of comprehensive voting rights legislation in August.

Last month, Republican Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird filed an appeal to a county court decision allowing Iowa voting materials to be printed in languages other than English, alleging the court's decision could threaten "election integrity."

English-only practices can be a form of white supremacy, Galindo said, and disinformation about voting can have a chilling effect.

"We shouldn't be okay with some communities having anemic political power because there's something like English-only voting services in that community," Galindo said. "We all lose when these English-only barriers are set up to prevent folks from making their selections at the ballot box."

In addition to going beyond the minimum threshold to expand access, advocates also point to a number of best practices for covered jurisdictions. These include coaching election officials on their obligations under law, hiring bilingual poll workers, and reusing and slightly modifying multilingual election materials when appropriate and necessary. Implementation is at the heart of issues around language assistance for election administrators, Galindo said.

"A lot of times it's like economies of scale, where there's coordination among elected officials," Galindo said. "There are already some counties that are obligated under Section 203, for example, to have all these materials in Spanish — so why reinvent the wheel? You can really have cost savings that way."

It's also critical for jurisdictions to be intentional about their language access services, Parikh said, whether it's having a native speaker review translations originally outsourced to a third party or considering how a person would interact with written versus verbal communication in election materials. Her organization, AAJC, recommends that jurisdictions' elections departments allocate 1% of the total department budget to language services, in addition to relying on community partners. 

This story has been updated to clarify the status of the Expanding the VOTE Act legislation.