This post is a part of Spread The Vote’s voter education program, Voter Ed. As a way to engage the voting population and support discussions about voting 365 days a year, each month, Voter Ed will explore one frequently asked voter question about the voting process. Edwina is our Voter Ed mascot. You can learn more about the Voter Ed program and Edwina at spreadthevote.org/voter-ed-1.
The United States is a nation of immigrants and immigration is a huge part of our national history, yet voters who have limited English proficiency often struggle to get involved in the political process. With the current anti-immigrant rhetoric dominating the news cycle, voters with limited English proficiency can feel unwelcome and even face discrimination and intimidation at the polls. These voters can feel disconnected from the political system because of another barrier to entry — voter information about the process and the candidates that’s completely inaccessible. Voter materials and ballot questions are typically written at a twelfth-grade level or higher, a reading level that’s well beyond the average native English speaker’s, let alone a voter who speaks English as a second language.
Thankfully, Congress saw the need for help for limited English proficiency (LEP) voters when it passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 and included a provision to provide language assistance for Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican voters under Section 203. In 1975, Section 203 was amended to expand protections of the VRA to apply to Native Americans, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Spanish-heritage citizens.
Under Section 203, jurisdictions with large limited English proficiency populations must provide voting materials and polling place assistance in that language. To fall under this requirement, the VRA has defined a language minority that exceeds five percent of the voting population, or over 10,000 voters, and whose illiteracy rates are higher than the national rate. These materials include documents like registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, and ballots.
December 2016 was the last time jurisdictions that Section 203 applied to were calculated. The provision applied to only 263 jurisdictions in 29 states. Of those jurisdictions, 217 required Spanish language materials, 45 required Asian American and Pacific Islander languages, and 57 required Native American or Alaskan native languages.
However, even if you live in a jurisdiction that doesn’t fall under Section 203, voters with difficulty reading English have an option to receive voting assistance if they need it. Section 208 of the VRA allows a voter unable to read the ballot for any reason, including LEP voters, to have assistance in voting from a person of their choosing, as long as that person is not an employer or union representative. This means that even if you live in a place that doesn’t meet the threshold for translating materials into the language you’re most comfortable with, voters with difficulty reading English still have an option to receive voting assistance. Voters who need assistance voting can bring a friend or family member, or ask for assistance from an election worker.
In addition, the following national and state organizations can be helpful resources for voters who may need language assistance while voting:
- Arab American Institute: Call 1–844-YALLA-US for help in Arabic.
- Asian Americans Advancing Justice: Call 1–888-API-VOTE for help in Bengali/Bangla, Hindi, Urdu, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog, and Vietnamese on election day.
- Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote: Call 1–888-API-VOTE for help in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Urdu, Hindi, and Bengali.
- Ya Es Hora ¡Ve Y Vota! Call 888-VE-Y-VOTA for help in Spanish.
Thanks for joining me this month as we learn more about the right to language assistance. Don’t forget to check back next month when we discuss restoration of voting rights!
Ed and the STV Team
Go to www.spreadthevote.org/voter-ed to sign up to be a Voter Ed partner and receive our monthly state-specific voter education packages. If you have any questions, you can email VoterEd@spreadthevote.org. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @SpreadTheVoteUS and visit our website, www.SpreadTheVote.org, to learn more!