This Election Day, more than 80 million Americans will have the option to vote in a language other than English, thanks to a federal provision that guarantees language assistance in the voting process for certain groups of people.
“The idea was to take groups that were historically excluded from the electoral process, and the mission was to make it more accessible for some of those groups,” says Gabe Osterhout, a research associate at the Idaho Policy Institute at Boise State University.
The original Voting Rights Act of 1965 focused primarily on the rights of African Americans in the South. The act was broadened in 1975 to include certain language minorities — Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Latinos and Asian Americans — to make voting more accessible.
“English voting materials or information functions essentially as a literacy test that precludes people who may be fully literate in their native language, or may not be literate in any language, but it functions as a barrier to the ability to participate,” says Jim Tucker, senior special counsel with the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Every five years, the U.S. Census Bureau determines which minority language groups must be accommodated with information in their primary language. That decision is based on whether more than 5% of eligible voters in an area speak limited English, or if there are more than 10,000 eligible voters in a jurisdiction with limited English proficiency.
Local elections officials are then required to offer voting materials, including ballots, in that second language.
In December 2021, Census listed the 331 jurisdictions that meet that threshold ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. It’s the largest number of jurisdictions ever covered by the federal provision, 68 more than in 2016.
Most of the covered jurisdictions are counties and municipalities, but three are states. California, Florida and Texas must provide Spanish-language voting materials in every statewide election, even though certain localities in those states are not required to provide bilingual ballots for their local contests.
More than 80 million voting-age citizens live in the areas where election officials are required to provide minority language assistance.
While the U.S. Justice Department tells the affected jurisdictions that they meet the guidelines and must provide language assistance, there is no built-in mechanism to enforce the rule.
“If we’re trying to understand its impact on turnout, well, we don’t really know who’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing among the counties that are covered,” Osterhout says. “And then on the flip side, there’s counties that aren’t covered, or cities or townships that aren’t covered, but might choose to offer these materials anyway.”
However, an analysis of registration and voting data from November 1996 and 2000 found evidence that “the language provisions of the Voting Rights Act have significant and positive effects on the voting rates of covered linguistic minorities.”
For example, professors Michael Jones-Correa and Israel Waismel-Manor found that voter turnout among Latinos was 11% higher in counties covered by the Voting Rights Act language requirements than in counties that did not provide materials and assistance in Spanish. They also found that voter registration among Latinos was 15% higher in counties that provided language assistance than those that did not.
“We’ve really seen substantial increases in participation by all the language minority groups that were covered, which there are four groups: American Indians, Alaska Natives, Latino or Spanish-speaking voters and Asian Americans who speak Asian languages since 1975, and a lot of that is directly attributable to the language provision for voting rights,” says Tucker, who is also the author of “The Battle Over Bilingual Ballots.”
He added that the language requirements do not put an increased financial burden on the covered counties.
“In many cases, there’s no additional costs,” he says, “but even where there is, it’s not a true unfunded federal mandate, because the federal government actually has provided funding to either offset, or in some cases, cover in its entirety whatever costs the jurisdiction might incur.”
The Voting Rights Act was initially supposed to expire by 1970, but it has been reauthorized five times with large, bipartisan majorities. It was last reauthorized in 2006 for 25 years.
“This is not a situation where it’s really a power grab by either party, because you just see such a diversity in terms of political views and who the candidates are that are supported, and political parties supported among the limited English proficient voters who get assistance,” Tucker says.
Mary Brennan, a professor of history at Texas State University, agrees that it’s a mistake to assume people who vote in different languages will vote a certain way.
“We make assumptions about how people of different languages are going to vote. We say, ‘Oh, these are immigrants, so they’re going to vote Democratic’. …We can’t assume what those people are going to do. People who voted in Spanish in Florida might be very conservative,” Brennan says. “I think it’s really dangerous to make assumptions about how people are voting just because they’re voting in a different language.”
And even if huge numbers of people don’t end up taking advantage of the opportunity to vote in their primary language, the effort isn’t wasted, in Osterhout’s view.
“Even if they don’t end up pursuing that right and don’t end up voting, there’s still value in recognizing that there’s a moral benefit to making voting more accessible,” he says.