A Los Angeles County vote center welcomes voters in multiple foreign languages during the 2020 presidential election. Californiaâ€™s language assistance program goes beyond federal requirements. Kirby Lee/The Associated Press
With primary elections well underway across the country, voting rights and immigrant advocates are raising the alarm about a lack of language assistance for voters who aren’t fluent in English.
While federal law requires counties with a certain percentage of non-English-speaking citizens to provide ballots in a limited number of languages, advocates contend the federal threshold is too high and does not cover enough languages, leaving voters in many immigrant communities unable to fully understand election materials.
This struggle is on display in Hall County, Georgia, a community that is 29% Latino but doesn’t have to provide ballots in Spanish because it doesn’t meet the federal lack of English proficiency criteria. Local officials also have refused to voluntarily provide Spanish ballots for voters, which has been frustrating for Jerry Gonzalez, CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, a nonprofit based just outside of Atlanta that advances civil engagement in the Latino community.
“There’s no reason why counties can’t better serve their changing demographics with the tools they need for a better voting process,” he said. “We all stand to benefit when those who are not fluent in English have meaningful access to cast their ballot in an informed way.”
Tom Smiley, chair of the Hall County elections board, opposed this effort because of cost concerns. In an interview with the Gainesville Times, he said: “There’s a large budget that would accompany that, and so it’s good for us to know that we did not meet that [federal] standard for this time.” He did not respond to requests for comment from Stateline.
For Americans whose native language is not English, navigating a jargon-filled ballot can be intimidating; it’s already complicated for the average English-speaking voter. But adding new language assistance can be challenging for many counties that might not be able to afford printing ballots in several different languages. Still, more voting rights and immigrant advocates are calling on local jurisdictions to voluntarily provide language assistance.
Voting rights advocates have been able to make slow progress. While Gwinnett County, northeast of Atlanta, is the only jurisdiction in Georgia federally mandated to provide non-English ballots and other election materials—it offers them in Spanish—DeKalb County does it voluntarily. Prior to the 2020 presidential election, leaders in DeKalb County, which is just east of Atlanta, decided to provide ballots in Korean and Spanish.
“Every voice deserves to be heard, regardless of what language you speak,” said Phi Nguyen, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta, a nonprofit advocacy group that lobbied the county to make the change. Federal coverage, she argued, does not go far enough.
In December, the U.S. Census Bureau released the list of 331 jurisdictions that meet the threshold laid out in Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees language assistance in the voting process. The number of jurisdictions covered by federal protections jumped by 68—the largest ever increase. California, Florida and Texas also must provide Spanish-language ballots in every statewide election.
Every five years, the census updates the list of counties that meet specific federal criteria: Either more than 5% of voting-age citizens or more than 10,000 voting-age citizens must have limited English proficiency, according to American Community Survey data. To qualify for language assistance, counties also must have a higher rate of voting-age citizens with limited-English proficiency and a lower rate of people with a fifth-grade education, both compared with the national average.
The U.S. Department of Justice informs jurisdictions when they qualify for the ballot language requirement and provides guidance in fulfilling it. But the agency does not ensure that local officials are following the rules. An individual or group would have to file a complaint to get the federal government to intervene. However, several voting rights advocates interviewed by Stateline could not cite an example of a jurisdiction flouting the requirement.
The federal criteria can be confusing, said Gabe Osterhout, a research associate at the Idaho Policy Institute, a research organization housed at Boise State University.
“It’s an imperfect science,” said Osterhout, who, along with others at the institute, is studying the effect that language assistance has on voter turnout. “Some counties don’t quite check all the boxes [to meet the federal standard].”
Since new census designations happen every five years, they often do not correspond with election years. Additionally, counties may be dropped or added to the federal requirement because of margins of error in the census data, he said. This concern may be more pronounced in coming years, since the 2020 census undercounted Black, Latino and Native American populations.
Some voting rights advocates argue the federal criteria for language assistance should be expanded. The Voting Rights Act provides language assistance only to voters “who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaska Natives, or of Spanish heritage.” That leaves out voters who are from Africa or the Middle East.
This has been difficult for voters in Dearborn, Michigan, an Arab immigrant bastion in the Detroit area, where more than half of the population speaks a language other than English at home. Seeing this gap in English proficiency, community leaders there are attempting to adopt Arabic-language ballots. But this effort has been challenging.
In March, the Dearborn City Council unanimously passed a resolution that directed local election officials to provide ballots in both English and Arabic ahead of the August primary. Advocates for the measure did not expect pushback from election officials.
But Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett, a Democrat, lambasted the process by which the measure passed, saying in a letter to the secretary of state published by the Detroit Free Press that “professional courtesies” were not followed and a lack of communication between the secretary of state’s office and the county clerk was “beyond negligible.”
Last month, Garrett shared her concerns about the original measure with the Dearborn City Council, which soon after passed a companion resolution that she said now allows the initiative to move forward.
“As a point [of] clarity, I’ve never opposed Arabic ballots and I fully support voting inclusion and fair access to ballots for all of Wayne County’s electorate,” Garrett said in a statement emailed to Stateline.
Garrett’s response to the Dearborn resolution was disappointing, said Rexhinaldo Nazarko, a policy and organizing associate for the Michigan chapter of Emgage, a voter mobilization and advocacy group focused on the Muslim community.
“This initiative should not have had any obstacles,” he said. “It has been a little disappointing to see this blame game, this pushback for something so unproblematic, so simple, something that is a basic right in the United States, the right to vote.”
Translating election materials and printing ballots in different languages can be costly, especially for cash-strapped election offices. Local election officials often lament that a shortage of resources can hinder ballot access and security efforts. Additional federal funding from Congress could be used for these language efforts, advocates say.
Other communities have not waited on a federal mandate before they offered ballots in different languages.
In Cook County, Illinois, home of Chicago and where 35% of residents speak a language other than English at home, local officials enacted an ordinance that expanded, beginning in 2020, the criteria by which the county offers ballots and election materials in other languages.
While the county is required by the federal government to provide ballots in Chinese, Hindi and Spanish, the county voluntarily added eight more languages to its list: Arabic, Gujarati, Korean, Polish, Russian, Tagalog, Ukrainian and Urdu. The statute requires the county to provide a native-language ballot if there are more than 13,000 speakers in the area.
In California, the second-most racially diverse state in the country behind Hawaii, nearly 45% of residents speak a language other than English at home, among them more than 200 languages and dialects. The secretary of state mandates counties add additional language assistance that goes beyond federal requirements.
Los Angeles County already is required by the feds to offer translated election materials in Cambodian, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese. The state, however, requires that the county also provides ballots in Armenian, Bengali, Burmese, Farsi, Gujarati, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Mongolian, Russian, Telugu and Thai.
Many local election officials feel obligated to assist voters whose English comprehension might not be high enough to fully understand their ballots, even if their non-English-speaking population does not meet the federal threshold.
It’s the right thing to do, said Heather Carmen, the assistant registrar of voters for Washoe County, Nevada, the only community in the state that voluntarily offers ballots and voter guides in English and Spanish. Voters also can bring someone to help translate their ballot at a polling place, as long as the assistant is not part of the voter’s labor union.
“We try to provide as much as we can,” Carmen said. “I want everybody to have an equal opportunity to learn about the candidates on the ballot and make an educated decision on who they’re voting for.”
Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, is federally mandated to provide ballots in Spanish and Tagalog, while Nye County is required to offer ballots in Shoshone.
Other Nevada communities should follow Washoe County’s example, said Mary Janet Ramos, the Nevada campaign manager for All Voting Is Local, a national voting rights organization that released a report last month calling on the state to provide better language assistance in elections.
In the third-most racially diverse state in the country, where nearly a half-million adults speak a language other than English, counties should be offering election materials in Amharic, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese to voters, she said. This fight is personal for Ramos: Growing up, she was asked by Spanish-speaking relatives to translate ballots for them.
“When it comes to accessibility and making sure every voter can participate in that process, not everyone is served equally,” she said. “We want to make sure that every voter, regardless of what language they speak, has the ability to cast a ballot.”
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