Minority Language Citizens
The following excerpt is from the U.S. Department of Justice Civil
Rights Division Voting Section:
The United States is a diverse land with a government selected by the votes of
its citizens. Federal law recognizes that many Americans rely heavily on
languages other than English, and that they require information in minority
languages in order to be informed voters and participate effectively in our
representative democracy. Many provisions of federal law protect the voting
rights of minority language Americans. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act is
the keystone. Congress has mandated minority language ballots in some
jurisdictions since 1975, with the most recent changes in the method of
determining which jurisdictions must provide minority language materials and
information becoming law in 1992.
Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act
When Congress amended the Voting Rights Act in 1975 by adding Section
203, it found that "through the use of various practices and procedures,
citizens of language minorities have been effectively excluded from
participation in the electoral process ... The Congress declares that, in
order to enforce the guarantees of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments
to the United States Constitution, it is necessary to eliminate such
discrimination by prohibiting these practices."
Section 203 provides: "Whenever any State or political subdivision [covered by
the section] provides registration or voting notices, forms, instructions,
assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process,
including ballots, it shall provide them in the language of the applicable
minority group as well as in the English language."
What jurisdictions are covered under Section 203?
The law covers those localities where there are more than 10,000 or over 5
percent of the total voting age citizens in a single political subdivision
(usually a county, but a township or municipality in some states) who are
members of a single minority language group, have depressed literacy rates, and
do not speak English very well. Political subdivisions also may be covered
through a separate determination for Indian Reservations. Determinations are
based on data from the most recent' Census, and the determinations are made by
the Director of the Census. The list of jurisdictions covered under Section 203
can be found at the web site of the Voting Section of the Justice Department's
Civil Rights Division.
What languages are covered under Section 203?
targets those language minorities that have suffered a history of exclusion from
the political process: Spanish, Asian, Native American, and Alaskan Native. The
Census Bureau identifies specific language groups for specific jurisdictions. In
some jurisdictions, two or more language minority groups are present in numbers
sufficient to trigger the Section 203 requirements.
What elections are covered?
Section 203 requirements apply to all elections conducted within the
bounds of the jurisdiction identified as covered by Section 203 by the
Census Bureau. The law applies to primary and general elections, bond
elections and referenda, and to elections of each municipality, school
district or special purpose district within the designated jurisdiction.
What information must be provided in the minority language?
All information that is provided in English also must be provided in the
minority language as well. This covers not only the ballot, but all election
information - voter registration, candidate qualifying, polling place notices,
sample ballots, instructional forms, voter information pamphlets, and absentee
and regular ballots - from details about voter registration through the actual
casting of the ballot, and the questions that regularly come up in the polling
place. Written materials must be translated accurately, of course. Assistance
also must be provided orally. Most Native American languages historically are
unwritten, so that all information must be transmitted orally. Oral
communications are especially important in any situation where literacy is
depressed. Bilingual poll workers will be essential in at least some precincts
on election day, and there should be trained personnel in the courthouse or city
hall who can answer questions in the minority language, just as they do for