As Minority Language Assistance Becomes More Common, A More Common Approach Makes Sense


The Denver Post had a story this weekend about the likelihood that 16 counties in Colorado will soon be required to make ballots and other election materials available in Spanish. These requirements will be driven by 2010 Census data and required by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 203 uses the Census data to identify jurisdictions in which the citizens voting age population in a single language group within the jurisdiction 1) is more than 10,000, OR 2) is more than five percent of all voting age citizens, OR 3) on an Indian reservation, exceeds five percent of all reservation residents AND the illiteracy rate of the group is higher than the national illiteracy rate.

For all the attention that Section 5 of the Act has gotten in recent years – because of the requirement that covered jurisdictions get federal approval for changes to voting laws and procedures – it is easy to make a case that Section 203 directly affects far more voters on a regular basis. After the 2000 Census, the U.S. Department of Justice determined that 425 states and localities were required to offer voting materials in alternate languages. As the Colorado story suggests, that number is poised to grow after the 2010 Census.

While Section 203 compliance does require time, effort and money to accomplish, the good news for election officials in new jurisdictions this year is that their 400-plus colleagues in existing Section 203 communities already have experience and materials that can be adapted to newcomers’ needs.

For example, in June I attended the Pacific Northwest Election Officials’ Conference in Vancouver, WA, where an entire session was dedicated to the issue of minority language assistance. Los Angeles County, CA’s Dean Logan talked about the challenges of the growing diversity of the electorate and discussed his office’s work to make materials available in nine languages other than English. Maricopa County, AZ’s Tammy Patrick demonstrated how her office used data mapping and other techniques to fine-tune their own minority language program. Cristina Labra, Washington State’s Minority Language Education Coordinator, described the state’s efforts to streamline minority language assistance, including the creation of a section of the Secretary’s online help manual for election officers devoted solely to minority language issues.

This kind of information sharing can and should happen both within and between states; while no two jurisdictions (or language communities) are alike, having common materials will afford newcomers a “first draft” that will help them get started while “old timers” will see many more use cases of their materials that be used to further improve what they already have.

So – if you are an election official in a jurisdiction who may soon be subject to Section 203, it makes sense to reach out to someone on the existing list.

After all, Section 203 is like any new language – it always helps to converse with an experienced speaker!

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