New Minority Language Data Resets Environment for Voting Assistance in 2012


Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau released a notice of determination of minority language status following the 2010 census.

It’s an interesting list – while some jurisdictions will be required for the first time to make voting materials available in alternate languages for the first time, many other jurisdictions who were on the list in 2002 are not this time around. As the Associated Press reported, the total number of covered jurisdictions went from 296 jurisdictions in 30 states ten years ago to 248 jurisdictions in 25 states beginning in 2012.

If you want to play with the data, I did a quick grab and reformat of the 2002 and 2012 determinations, which you can find here.

There are some interesting tidbits in there – for example, there is apparently a sizable Filipino population in Alaska’s Aleutians East Borough and enough Bangladeshis in Michigan’s Hamtramck City to qualify for language assistance.

It will be especially interesting to see what happens in those jurisdictions who no longer appear on the 2012 list; do they continue to offer voting materials in alternate languages? Or does such assistance fall victim to the overall desire to save resources in the current tight fiscal environment?

For jurisdictions just joining the list – or in the case of Los Angeles County, CA, adding yet another language – my observations from August still stand:

[I]nformation sharing [about minority language materials] 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.

Stay tuned – there will undoubtedly be far more news on this front over the next several months.

6 Comments on "New Minority Language Data Resets Environment for Voting Assistance in 2012"

  1. Good post, Doug. It will also be interesting to see how the Obama DOJ approaches enforcement. Remember the Bush Administration made stringent enforcement a hallmark (the hallmark?) of its VRA enforcement, in part I think to cover its lack of enthusiasm for other parts of the act. For election officials, whether the Obama DOJ takes a cooperative approach and works with local offices, or insists on memoranda of agreement (or other court-enforced devices), can make a world of difference for how they run their offices.

    Tighter election budgets may also complicate the efforts of some election directors to keep their jurisdictions out of hot water by making it more difficult to proactively provide assistance …

    • I’m also curious whether, as more and more jurisdictions offer language assistance, the “start up costs” for such assistance go down. Specifically, I wonder whether new 203 jurisdictions end up spending less (in real dollars) as compared to their 2002 counteparts.

      • South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant released the following statement (

        Today the United States Census Bureau released an update to jurisdictions subject to minority language assistance. As a result of new census data, South Dakota went from having 18 counties subject to the act in 2002 to zero counties subject to the act as a result of the 2010 census count. The list, which will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow, identifies which jurisdictions are covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act and must provide language assistance for language groups.
        Secretary Gant noted, “I view the removal of federal oversight as less of a problem and more of an opportunity. For example, in the 2010 general election, in one county, translators and equipment for Lakota language assistance cost taxpayers more than $2400, and they had zero use of the system in the election. Instead of expensive federal mandates, we will be working at the local level with tribal leaders to achieve local solutions while saving taxpayer dollars.”
        Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act mandates that a state or political subdivision must provide language assistance to voters if more than five (5) percent of voting age citizens are members of a single-language minority group and do not “speak or understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process” and “if the rate of those citizens who have not completed the fifth grade is higher than the national rate of voting age citizens who have not completed the fifth grade.”

        “This is a defining moment in voting for Native Americans across South Dakota,” Gant said. “Our mission now is to ensure that no vote goes uncounted.” In conjunction with today’s announcement, Secretary Gant has announced steps that his office will be taking to ensure equal access to the ballot for affected Lakota speaking Native Americans.

        The existing Voting Rights program, in place since 2002, has come under fire in the past due to excessive costs with minimal usage to conduct the program in South Dakota. Gant noted, “We have the opportunity to move past federal government solutions on federally mandated language requirements. Working with South Dakota tribal leaders, we can find reasonable answers to ensure that Lakota speaking Native American voters – many of them elderly – are served by the electoral process with simplicity and dignity.”

        “We’ve enjoyed great relations with South Dakota tribes, working together on corporate registration and other business issues. We’ll likely combine our dialogue on ballot translation with other topics as we work together on mutually beneficial solutions.”

  2. Perhaps the “minimal usage” mentiond by the DS SOS is indicative of a general failure to engage in appropriate outreach to and partnerships with native communities.

  3. The South Dakota stuff is interesting. I doubt many Native Americans (particularly those living near Wounded Knee!) will agree that this is “a defining moment in voting for Native Americans.”

    That said, the coverage formula probably works better in some places than others. When I was on the Pine Ridge reservation for elections I asked a lot of Lakota if they knew of any tribes people who had trouble with English, and they could only speculate that there might be some very elderly people living in remote areas who might have trouble, but they didn’t know of any. For those voters, it’s probably more personal assistance that is needed than, say, bilingual materials. In any case, it will be interesting to see what happens in South Dakota now that the mandate is gone.

  4. A fair amount of the Native American coverage was (and is) illusory. The coverage formula is based on the language need rate in reservations, and a number of counties with zero Native population were/are covered because they include unpopulated parts of reservations.

    Most of the counties – both Native American and Spanish – that dropped out are rural areas with very small populations.

    The big relative increase is in the Asian language coverage. Past experience indicates that the new Asian coverage will pose real challenges for many counties. There was little new Spanish coverage compared to the 1992-2002 increase.

    For what it’s worth, 5 of the 6 Voting Rights Act cases filed during the Obama administration to date have involved the minority language provisions.

    The start-up and ongoing costs depend upon how thoughtful and proactive the election officials are. There are ways to minimize costs while seerving voters effectivley, and ways to waste a lot of money while serving few voters.

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