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How Language Access Can Help Around Nine Million U.S. Voting-age Citizens Participate in the Political Process

For an effective and fully functional democracy, large-scale participation of the citizens in the electoral process is essential. For this, the electoral process has to be as simple as possible. This includes making the voting instructions easy to read and understand. Though English is the most prominent language of our country, a significant chunk of around 25 million of our voters has limited proficiency in it. This includes immigrant communities as well as historically discriminated groups. The voting process is a complicated procedure that even proficient English-speaking voting speakers find difficult. Not knowing English enough reduces the LEP (Limited English Proficiency) voters’ chances of being a part of the process where they can make a difference.

Challenges for LEP Voters

A voter is less likely to vote if they cannot understand the ballot. A voter who does not speak English will find the voting process much more difficult to navigate. Language barriers to voting lead to inaccurate representation that is in reality disenfranchisement. Language access to voting materials, on the other hand, helps LEP and non-English speaking residents understand the ballot process. With access to the language they understand, these eligible voters can cast informed votes, and increase voter participation effectively leading to a healthy democracy. 

How the Voting Rights Act Helps

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed in 1975 to help voters facing language barriers overcome discrimination and exercise their right to vote. 

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act deals with language minority provisions. It states that language assistance is to be provided to certain language minority groups with limited or no proficiency in English to participate in the electoral process. These communities and groups at the time included Native American, Alaskan Native, Latin, and Asian-American communities. It states that for each state, county, or county subdivision, if more than 10,000 voting-age citizens are LEP, or 5 percent of the voting-age citizens are LEP, then the elections have to be in bilingual mode, i.e., both in English and the dominant minority language of the constituency. This means that all communication including ballots, voter registration information, polling place notices and all printed material has to be translated to the minority language. Voters have to be informed beforehand and bilingual poll workers have to be used. 

Another condition in favor of limited proficiency voters is that if the rate of LEP voters of a constituency having less than 5th-grade education is higher than the national average, then the aforementioned provisions will be applied. 

The Voting Rights Act was reauthored in 2006 that extended the language provisions through 2032. The review period was shortened to 5 years instead of 10 so that Census Bureau can determine which communities need the safeguards against voter discrimination based on the new data collected. 

Limitations of the Voting Rights Act and Reforms Undertaken

Section 203 of the VRA act only protected certain historically discriminated communities like Native Americans, Alaskan Native, Asian and Spanish-language minorities. The 5 year review period includes new communities and also removes certain communities that develop a stronger command of English. Even after all these reforms, certain languages have not been included that including Haitian-Creole, Russian and Arabic among others. The voters speaking these languages add up to nearly 3 million, none of whom are eligible for Section 203 accommodations. Other than these, a significant number of voters having a first language other than English, along with nearly 2 million Hispanic voters are residents of communities with levels below the Section 203 mandates. 

How MHM Human Translation LLC Helps

We, at MHM Human Translation LLC, believe that every vote counts. Voter participation of all eligible citizens is essential for a fully effective democracy. Keeping this in mind, our team of translators is dedicated to helping remove language barriers to the voting process. We help provide language access to ballot information and easy-to-understand election materials to all American citizens, whether they are English speaking or not. 

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