The United States is a melting pot, rich in many cultures. Historically, this has prevented some citizens from voting. When they don't understand the language of the majority, they can't fully understand the voting process. They can't read ballots. They can't easily communicate a need for help. Over the years, the federal government has taken steps to deal with this problem.
Voting Rights Act Addresses Language
Congress amended the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1975 to address the problem of language barriers in voting. The VRA prevents state voting laws from discriminating against certain classes of people. As originally written, the VRA did not address citizens who don't speak or read English. The 1975 change broadened the VRA to include these individuals. Since then, Congress has expanded on that amendment several times in an attempt to refine it and to add new minority groups.
Census Bureau Determines Who Needs Help
If states had to address all languages spoken by any citizen, the VRA would be unworkable. Congress therefore appointed the U.S. Census Bureau to use census records to identify language groups that might need help in each jurisdiction. If more than 10,000 citizens, or more than five percent of the citizens eligible to vote, speak a language in any jurisdiction, they become a language group covered by the terms of the Voting Rights Act. The percentage of illiterate citizens within the group must also be greater than the national average.
Voting Materials Must Be Understandable
Federal law requires that all election materials distributed or made available in a jurisdiction must be readable by people in a covered language group. If Spanish-speaking citizens are a covered group under the Census Bureau formula, the jurisdiction must print everything in both English and Spanish. This includes voter registration forms, instructions, ballots, and even notices.
Languages Are Limited
The Census Bureau formula doesn't include every language in the world. It's limited to Spanish and Asian dialects, as well as Native American languages. If a group of potential voters in a jurisdiction speaks another language, like Swahili, the jurisdiction does not have to take steps to circulate voting materials in the Swahili language, even if the group's number matches or exceeds the Census Bureau criteria.
A Civil Rights Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding language requirements and voting rights is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a civil rights lawyer.