With another election coming up, many voters are already thinking about casting their ballots fairly soon. US citizens who speak languages other than English will often have access to election materials in their primary language thanks to federal provision requiring that state and local elections officials provide translated ballots and other documents. To understand why this is essential, it’s important to consider how translation improves access to and participation in the electoral process. For this article, we’ll consider how the federal government mandates and advocates for language accessibility. This may help you maintain compliance with federal standards--or simply learn more about them.
The Voting Rights Act
Since 1975, The Voting Rights Act has protected the rights of people who speak non-English languages to have access to the election process in languages they understand well. This helps to expand meaningful participation in elections and also helps to prevent discrimination against non-English speakers. Since the right to vote is protected by the US Constitution, there is also Constitutional basis for protecting Americans’ voting rights this way. Compliance with the Act is enforced by the Justice Department and can apply to individual states and local jurisdictions as well.
The Act uses local population information to determine which areas are required to provide assistance and which languages are mandated. US Census data provides an updated picture every ten years of how each area has changed, and the Census’ Community Survey updates jurisdiction information every five years, so that population changes are reflected on a regular basis. As of 2016, the areas required to provide translated materials had nearly 70 million residents who are eligible to vote, or about a third of eligible voters. Three states are required by the Justice Department to offer Spanish translations of all election materials--Florida, California, and Texas. Other states only have specific languages mandated for individual jurisdictions.
Limited English Proficiency
These and other translation requirements elections officials must comply with are based on English proficiency, not national origin or ethnicity. As populations change in a given area, it’s true that translation requirements can change. Immigration is certainly a factor influencing how many people living in one area speak a given language, but other factors are also applicable and taken under consideration by the federal government. For instance, English proficiency typically grows over time when more Americans attain higher levels of education. A higher average education level in one jurisdiction may encourage the federal government to remove that area’s translation requirement when there’s evidence that it won’t harm participation in elections.
US Election Assistance Commission (The EAC)
The US Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is the US agency charged with helping election officials. The Language Accessibility Program within the EAC studies language needs within US elections systems and offers some translated materials for the benefit of elections officials to use in national elections. The EAC also advocates for greater language accessibility.
Improving Elections By Removing Language Barriers
US election language regulations are meant to remove barriers to voter participation. For Americans who don’t speak, read, and write English fluently, it can be frustrating (not to mention discriminatory) to not have information and/or a ballot in their primary language. To vote effectively and make personal decisions about which candidates and initiatives to support, it’s essential to be able to understand the options that are available. This is why Americans work hard to ensure that the elections system is as fair and open as possible--and why language accessibility is mandated. Voters deserve accessible elections. Removing language barriers is key to making accessible elections possible.