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Language Access For Voters

An essential component of getting everyone to the polls to vote is to make the process as simple as possible. Part of that struggle is to make the instructions for voting available in as many languages as possible. English is the most prominent language in the United States of course, but it is hardly the only one spoken by the population. Governing.com lays out the nature of the problem we are looking at in sharp relief: 

Today in the United States, one in five people speak a language other than English at home, and of that population who are 15 or older 42 percent report having some difficulty with the English language. Despite the increases in the eligible voting populations of Latinos and Asian-Americans in recent decades, according to the Pew Research Center there continues to be a 15-20 percent gap in voting participation rates between those voters and whites.

The fact that language access to voting is not available in some places has depressed the vote. It has contributed to an inaccurate representation of the will of the people. 

People Without Language Access To Voting Often Face Other Challenges 

There is no question that those with language barriers to voting also see many of the other challenges that are shared by marginalized communities. That is to say that they may have difficulty procuring transportation to the polling place on election day. They likely have other concerns to deal with in the immediate future that other communities don't have to worry about as much. In short, when a person is concerned with where their next meal is coming from, they don't necessarily have as much concern about voting. Voting feels like something distant and not instantly concerning, but other things are far more pressing. 

Misconceptions about voting as well as tighter voter identification laws only add to the challenges that these communities face. Discrimination and voter intimidation remain major issues as well. A voter who does not speak English as their first language or who has a limited grasp of the English language at all may feel that they are not eligible to vote or that they are not wanted at the polling place at the very least. This makes them far less likely to show up than a native English speaker. 

Voter intimidation is on the rise according to reporting from ProPublica among other outlets. Their report was filed in the run-up to the 2018 mid-terms and specifically focused on voters in Texas, though the trends found can be broadened and expected to have continued to the upcoming 2020 election, if not having grown even more true. Poll workers in the report described instances of voter intimidation as being worse than what they have seen in decades.

The Voting Rights Act 

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed in 1965 and specifically laid out the rules and regulations regarding what jurisdictions must do to ensure that those with a language barrier are not met with discrimination when they go to vote. Section 203 of the VRA in particular shows a particular recognition of the damage that discrimination has done to Hispanic, Native American, Alaskan Native, and Asian-American communities. 

The VRA was reauthorized in 2006 with an extension out to 2032 and a review period of five years rather than ten years going forward. What this means in practice is that new determinations can be made about which communities are discriminated against based on new data collected every five years. 

A jurisdiction falls under the rules of Section 203 if they have either greater than 10,000 people who speak a language other than English as their primary language or if greater than 5% of the population falls into that category. These boundaries are established as a way of determining which areas need the protections most urgently, and they are designed to help in areas that have the most non-native English speakers. 

How To Help Non-Native English Speakers 

Providing information and election materials in all languages spoken in your county can increase voter participation. It is discouraging that some people are unable to vote because of language barriers.

Accommodations can be made to help non-native English speakers by translating the following materials into languages spoken in your county:

  • Voting booth locations
  • Different options for how to vote
  • Instructions for how to request vote-by-mail ballots
  • Instructions for how to vote at the voting booths
  • Ballots  

Why The 2020 Election Could Be The Biggest Challenge Yet 

The 2020 election could be the biggest challenge to voter's rights that we have seen yet. Extra layers of complexity have been added to this election cycle by the fact that the expectation is that millions of voters will cast their ballots via the mail. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to decide to cast their vote in this way. 

It becomes more difficult to help those in marginalized communities when the rules are so scattershot throughout the nation. The time to prepare for this situation is right now. People need to insist that they be provided with the materials that they require to read the ballot in the language that they speak as their primary language. Volunteers are working to make sure this happens, but there is so much more work left to do. 

Most states require that a registered voter request a mail-in ballot in order to receive one. Some states require that a voter provide a reason or excuse for why they need to vote absentee like this, but many states have included the COVID-19 pandemic as a reasonable excuse for voting absentee. Thus, anyone who feels that they are unsafe voting in-person because of the pandemic can request their mail-in ballot. This is where marginalized communities need the most help with voting.  It could be a defining moment in the 2020 election cycle.

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