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Voting Rights

LARC Home Page Federal and state voting laws require covered jurisdictions to provide LEP individuals with voting materials, instructions, and assistance to voters in alternative languages.

Federal Protections                                                                   

The minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which have been in effect since 1975, are found in Sections 203 and 4(f)(4) of the Act. These provisions mandate that any covered jurisdiction which “provides any registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots” must provide such materials and information “in the language of the applicable minority group as well as in the English language.” See Section 203(c), 42 U.S.C. 1973aa-1a(c).

The determination of which States or political subdivisions are subject to the Voting Rights Act’s minority language requirements is based on a formula that uses Census Bureau data regarding ethnicity figures, English proficiency rates, and literacy rates. Section 203, for example, is triggered if, in a particular jurisdiction: (i) more than 5% of the citizen voting age population, or 10,000 citizens of voting age, are members of a single language minority, and (ii) the illiteracy rate of the citizens in the language minority group is higher than the national illiteracy rate. See Section 203(b)(2)(A), 42 U.S.C. 1973aa-1a(b)(2)(A).

With respect to section 4(f)(4), a jurisdiction is subject to the translation obligations if: (i) less than 50% of the citizen voting age population was either registered to vote, or actually voted, in the November 1972 presidential election, (ii) the 3 Section 4(f)(3-4), 42 U.S.C. 1973b(f)(3-4). Essentially, section 4(f)(4) applies the 1972 section 5 coverage trigger to language translation obligations. See Section 203(e), 42 U.S.C. 1973aa-1a(e).

The only language minority groups covered under sections 4(f)(4) and 203 are American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives, and citizens of Spanish heritage. See Section 203(e), 42 U.S.C. 1973aa-1a(e). (Statement by  Rena J. Comisac, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Civil Rights Division U.S. DOJ made on May 4, 2006 available here and in the resources below.)

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 also protects the right to vote of United States citizens educated in American-flag schools in any state, territory, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, in a language other than English because of such citizens' inability to read, write, understand, or interpret English. 42 U.S.C. § 1973b(e)(1, 2).

In a recent Federal decision, the Court found that the county and election officials had an English-only election process and denied Spanish-speaking voters right to take an assistant into voting booth, resulting in electoral system in which Hispanic and Spanish-speaking voters had less opportunity than other members of electorate to participate in electoral process in violation of Voting Rights Act of 1965, and required permanent injunction and authorization of federal examiners to oversee compliance. See United States v Berks County (2003, ED Pa) 277 F Supp 2d 570.

Each state is also provided money from the Federal government to improve the administration of elections and the accessibility and quality of polling places including providing assistance for individuals with limited English proficiency. See 42 USC § 15301 (b)(1)(G).

There are also voting system standards which require that each voting system used in an election for Federal office shall provide alternative language accessibility pursuant to the requirements of section 203 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C. 1973aa-1a). See 42 USC § 15481.  

The National Voter Registration Act was passed in 1993 to enhance voting opportunities for every American. It requires the administration of voter registration to be uniform, nondiscriminatory, and in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C. 1973 et seq.)See 42 U.S.C 1973gg-6.

New York Protections                                                              4

New York also has protections in the state election law. The first provision involves the training of election inspectors and poll clerks. These election workers are required to uphold the rights of voters at the polls and have an obligation to protect those rights while maintaining the integrity of the franchise, including assisting voters with with limited or no proficiency in the English language. See New York State Election Law § 3-412 1-a, (2006).

New York election law also provides that when an individual is registering to vote is a person who does not speak the English language, they may be assisted by a relative who can interpret for him.
See New York State Election Law § 5-216 (2006)

When the inspectors of elections is inspecting the voting machines before the polls open, they must affix a conspicuous notice in English and such other languages as the board of elections may determine to be appropriate in a prominent place in the machine or booth, instructing the voter how they must operate the machine to ensure their vote is counted. See New York State Election Law § 8-102 (2006)

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Last Updated: August  11, 2008 ● Empire Justice Center © 2008