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?
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
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 English-speaking voters.
What are the keys to a successful program?
The cornerstone of every successful program is a vigorous outreach program to identify the needs
and communication channels of the minority community. Citizens who do not speak English
very well, often rely on communication channels that differ from those used by English-speakers.
Each community is different. The best-informed sources of information are people who are in
the minority community and those who work with it regularly. Election officials should talk to
them. Minority leaders are an important starting point, but election officials should not stop
there. By talking to a broad range of people in the minority community - educators, business
groups, labor groups, ESL programs, parent-teacher organizations, senior citizen groups, church
groups, social and fraternal organizations, veterans groups, and the like - election officials will be
able to identify the most effective and most efficient program possible: where to post notices,
what media to use, where to have bilingual poll officials. These same persons can help identify
and recruit bilingual poll officials and some of them may be able to provide important feedback
on proposed translations.
Minority community members and those who work with them can play a significant role in
developing and maintaining an effective bilingual election program and need not wait to be
contacted by election officials. Minority language citizens should promptly respond to requests
for advice and feedback from local election officials, who often are faced with severe time
constraints. They also should reach out to city and county election officials to make suggestions
on the program, offer to serve as poll officials, and otherwise participate actively in the minority
language program that is adopted. They should report any compliance problems to local election
officials and, should those officials fail to adequately address the problems, they should notify
the Justice Department. Contact information is included at the end of this brochure.
2. Bilingual election personnel
Voters ask questions at the polls on election day. They have trouble with the voting machines.
They are not sure of their precinct. They may not be able to read the ballot. Failure to employ
bilingual poll officials at all precincts where they are needed can deprive citizens of their right to
New poll workers - and indeed many veteran poll officials - need effective training in matters
beyond the operation of the polls, including the broader election process so that they can answer
questions accurately. Experienced poll officials at times need training on the rights of minority
3. Accurately Translated and Effectively Distributed Materials
Materials for all stages of the election process must be translated. Care should be taken to
provide an accurate translation that meets the needs of the minority community. Poor
translations can be misleading for voters and embarrassing for local officials. Beyond quality
control, there can be significant differences in dialect within a given language group, and it is the
responsibility of local officials to provide a translation that local voters actually can use. Local
officials should reach out to the local minority community to help produce or check translations.
Time before the next election is limited - extremely limited for some jurisdictions - and there is
much to do to adjust something as complex as an election process. Outreach to the minority
community should begin immediately to help establish an effective and efficient minority
language election program, so that priorities can be set for the many tasks that must be
5. Contingency Planning
hings go wrong. Poll officials get sick and don't show up. Materials wind up at the wrong
place, or get lost completely. Minority language voters appear in unexpected polling places. An
effective minority language program includes plans for addressing problems, such as training for
poll officials in how to deal with surprise situations, back-up communication between the polling
places and the central election office, and extra material and bilingual personnel to plug gaps.
Again, close communication with the minority community will help minimize the fallout from
those inevitable problems that will occur.
6. Assess, Analyze and Improve
An effective minority language program is an ongoing exercise. Minority language citizens will
move into some new areas and create a need for new communications and new bilingual poll
officials. The need in other areas may disappear with time. Such changes are reflected in a
number of ways, such as changes in school enrollment. Like a business enterprise, an elections
office must meet the needs of a changing clientele. Continuing consultation with minority
leaders and groups will remain a part of an effective program.
It also can help to make a record of consultations and other outreach activities. This helps
identify both successes and gaps, and builds institutional memory.
THE ROLE OF THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT
- Inform - The Department of Justice notifies each jurisdiction that it is covered under
Section 203, and also reaches out to minority communities to make them aware of the law.
- Assist - We provide information to jurisdictions and answer questions about
- Enforce - We investigate and pursue allegations of violations of federal law, and take
appropriate enforcement action.
Where do I go for more information?
Information about Section 203, including its text, a list of covered jurisdictions,
and the Attorney General's Minority Language Guidelines, is on the Voting
Section web site at /crt/about/vot/index.php.
You also may contact
Civil Rights Division
Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. - NWB
Washington, DC 20530
PHONE - 202-307-2767; 1-800-253-3931
FAX - 202-307-3961
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