A growing number of voters and potential voters are limited English proficient (LEP), and need extra assistance on Election Day. As the Commission stated, "[n]o voter, for any reason, should be made to feel unwelcome or in any way a "second-class" citizen." This is particularly true given that, as reported in Common Cause's and Demos' publication, "Bullies at the Ballot Box," some individuals and groups use intimidation tactics against immigrant communities at the polls. It is essential, then, that bilingual poll workers are on hand to eliminate any confusion caused by others and provide needed guidance, from the time an LEP individual steps in line until he or she casts a ballot. Otherwise, voters with limited English may be discouraged from participating in elections going forward.
Because language limitations can be a huge barrier for some, the Commission recommended that election officials work with members of minority language groups in their jurisdictions to address language needs at the polls. Resources are often in short supply but, if elections officials identify their language needs early -- especially with respect to the anticipated number of potential LEP voter turnout -- they can seek out bilingual volunteers from nearby advocacy groups to provide necessary translation of voting documents and interpretation services. Just as important is ensuring that translations and interpretations are performed by adequately skilled individuals. We recommend that jurisdictions use some form of language skill test and/or require a certain level of certification.
Under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, jurisdictions covered under a certain formula are required to provide language assistance to language minority groups by way of translation (of all voting materials) and interpretation during voting. The following states contain covered jurisdictions required to provide language assistance services: Colorado (3), Alaska (9), Michigan (3), Pennsylvania (3), and Florida (11). Any assistance or materials provided in English must also be provided in the language applicable to the covered population.
Colorado, again, gets high marks for robust statutory language. "If the county clerk and recorder finds that a precinct is composed of three percent or more non-English-speaking eligible electors, the county clerk and recorder shall take affirmative action to recruit full-time or part-time staff members who are fluent in the language used by the eligible electors and in English. The action shall be conducted through voluntarily donated public service notices in the media, including newspapers, radio, and television, particularly those media that serve those non-English-speaking persons." Additionally, the Secretary of State's website announces that voters with special needs, "including the need for language assistance, have the right to have an election judge or any other person they choose[,] assist them with voting."
Alaska, which is covered under Section 203 for provision of services in Native American languages, states on its Elections Division website that on-call translators are made available on Election Day, and language assistance is given through bilingual registrars, outreach workers, bilingual poll workers, and translations in communities where needed. Hats off to the Last Frontier for this online assurance; we expect and hope that the realities on the ground mirror its intentions. Like Colorado, however, it should add language to its statutes regarding bilingual poll worker requirements.
Michigan's Secretary of State's website posts some, but not all, of its forms in Spanish, but makes no mention of bilingual poll workers on the ground; state statutes are also silent on the matter. One Michigan jurisdiction is required under the Act to provide election materials in Bengali; both that jurisdiction and the state provide translated forms for it. Jurisdictions with high percentages of non-English-speaking voters "regularly employ bilingual poll workers," though this appears to be ad hoc. Florida advertises a voter assistance hotline in Spanish and English on its Division of Elections' website; its site previously made no mention of bilingual poll workers, but it has since updated its FAQs on poll workers, encouraging bilingual individuals to apply. As well, Pennsylvania's Secretary of State's site is silent on the matter, and so are its statutes.
As the Commission recommended, the above states' jurisdictions should not be alone in providing interpretation and translation services. Any state with a sizable limited English proficient population should, through its local jurisdictions, reach out to advocates within those communities to recruit interpreters and translators on, and prior to, Election Day (especially for translation of voting materials). Doing so will make for a more efficiently run election.
The remaining states are not covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Louisiana has statutory language requiring assistance in jurisdictions with "significant" limited English proficient populations; it's a step in the right direction. Kentucky and North Carolina have no statutory language regarding assistance for limited English proficient persons; neither do their elections divisions' websites. Arkansas does not have a law on the books either, although its Secretary of State's website does state that voters in "jurisdictions with a statutorily-specified minimum number of language minority voters" may be entitled to ballots and assistance in another language (paving the way for inclusion under the VRA, if populations were to increase). Georgia law states that electors shall not receive outside assistance, "unless [they are] unable to read the English language �," but it does not make additional assurances for bilingual poll workers; neither does its Secretary of State's website.
Invariably, a limited English proficient person who speaks a rare language will show up on Election Day, and no available interpreters will be on hand. We advise that, if the voter is not accompanied by someone who can provide needed interpretation services, elections officials have quick access to a telephonic interpreter to handle the matter."
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