Voting from Spanish to Yup’ik: Rights for language minorities in the US presidential elections

Babbel speaks with attorney Bryan Sells about non-English speakers voting in the US.
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Voting from Spanish to Yup’ik: Rights for language minorities in the US presidential elections

Bryan Sells, an attorney with the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spoke to Babbel Blog about the legal provisions made to facilitate voting for non- or limited- English speakers in United States, especially in light of the upcoming US presidential election .

Click here to hear the interview with Bryan Sells. Right click to download mp3

Babbel Blog: Briefly, what does the Voting Rights Project do?

Bryan Sells: We protect voting rights on a non-partisan basis. Our mission as part of the ACLU is to fight for the principles embodied in our nation’s constitution and civil rights laws. A lot of what that means on the day to day, is protecting minority voting rights, working to improve the election system.

We have the election coming up on November 4th. A lot of registered voters in the United States do not speak English as a first language or not at all. Do you have a rough idea of how many voters we’re talking about, and what provisions are there in the law for non-English speakers?

I don’t have any good data on how many people use or need language assistance. But it is a federal law that applies everywhere in the country, that if you need language assistance, or assistance of any kind because you can’t read the ballot because of literacy issues or language issues, or if you’ve got a physical disability, you have the right to bring someone with you to interpret or translate, and help you in casting a vote. That applies everywhere.
Congress has also passed, as part of the Voting Rights Act, extra protections in certain parts of the country, where we know there are large concentrations of non-English speakers or limited English proficiency speakers. And a list of those is produced every ten years after the federal census. If you live in a county or a city where these protections apply, there will be translators at the polls, or you’ll be able to get a ballot in the language that is protected there. For example, in New York City, there are ballots and materials available in many different languages. But this part of the Voting Rights Act doesn’t apply nationally, so you have to check what’s available in your area.

But even if that kind of language assistance isn’t available, you have a right to bring an interpreter with you. That interpreter can be anyone you choose. It can even be someone you meet at the polls. As long as the person is not a representative of your employer or your labor union, and those are safeguards to protect the voter from undue influence.

Could you talk a little bit about the different types voting methods or equipment, and if they have provisions as well for non-English speakers? Are there ballots actually translated?

Well it depends on where you are. Voting technology in this county is done on a state by state, or sometimes on a county by county basis. Meaning that different states and counties can have different machines. One of the more popular machines over the five to ten years has been touch-screen voting machines, which works sort of like an ATM, or a touch-screen computer, where you stick a card in it, and your ballot comes up on a screen, and you touch it to register your choice. Those machines make it very easy to have instructions in a different language. But again, they will only do that if they’re in an area that is required to provide language assistance. There’s also optical scan voting, which gives you a paper ballot, and you usually fill in an oval or a box next to the candidate that you want to vote for, and then they put it into a machine that reads the ovals and tabulates your ballot. Oftentimes if a county uses those systems and is required to provide language assistance, there will be just a separate set of instructions in a different language.

Have there been difficulties or conflicts for non-English speaking voters in past elections? Do you forsee any in this election?

There’s always the possibility that localities aren’t going to comply with federal law, or don’t know about federal law because of poor training of the poll workers. It hasn’t been an enormous problem, because the Department of Justice over the last several years has done a fairly good job at making sure that language assistance is available where it’s required. It’s pretty well known across the land that you’re allowed to bring an interpreter with you. Where we see red flags when it comes to limited English speakers is at the registration stage, where there are questions about a person’s eligibility to vote because they may or may not be citizens, and by and large you have to be a citizen to vote in this country.

On your website for the Voting Rights project I saw that there was an issue for native Alaskan voters?

That’s right, we’re engaged in litigation in Alaska because, our allegation is the state of Alaska isn’t providing as much language assistance as it should. One of the questions in that case is whether some of these native Alaskan languages are historically written or unwritten. We have argued and are still arguing that they are written languages, and that the state of Alaska should provide ballots and instructions in that written language. The state of Alaska would prefer simply to use translators at the polls. That sort of thing is ongoing.

But there’s not a question there whether the language is legitimate or not if it’s not written. It’s more a matter of whether it can be on the ballots.

Right. If a language – and this often comes up with native American languages – if a language is not a written language but is simply handed down orally, then it would be very difficult for states to provide ballot instrutions in the language in any written form. That operates as an exception, or a safe harbor, from the law. Alaska would – for various reasons – prefer to not have to provide written ballot instructions and so forth in Yup’ik. But if a language is written, such as Spanish or French in some cases, a number of Asian languages are subject to the Language Minorities Provision of the Voting Rights Act. Then there’s no excuse for failing to provide equal, or… a translation for all ballot and election materials.

How long has that minority language provision been around?

Since 1975, it was added to the Voting Rights Act in 1975.

How did that happen?

It was an outgrowth of our experience under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when African Americans in this country got special protections for their rights to vote, and in the late 60s and early 70s the US Commission on Civil Rights examined the effectiveness of that law and where we needed to improve, and found that there was a lot of discrimination against in particular Spanish speakers and other language minorities as a major barrier to voting. Congress responded by creating the Language Assistance Provision.

How are things going right now with recruiting bilingual pollworkers? Is there an effort to get bilingual pollworkers at the polls for election day?

It’s hard for us to say on any blanket basis. Some localities do a better job than others. Native American languages are particularly underserved, I would say. Usually when election officials recruit pollworkers they just hire the same people they’ve hired before, because it makes it easier to train. And that has the effect of shutting out people who haven’t participated before. So you’ve got some areas of the country that really do a good job of hiring bilingual pollworkers who have written materials in these other languages, and other areas that don’t.

Is there a resource where non-English speakers can obtain information about their rights?

We have a website,, and we have been doing Voter Empowerment Cards for about 30 states. You can access those cards from that website. We’ve done the card in several different languages, depending on what the different language concentrations are in the state, so that’s one place to look. Another place I suggest the voters look is at the Secretary of State’s website. Each state has a chief election official, and they very often have on their website some information on language assistance and what’s available in your specific area.

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