About Language Minority Voting Rights
The Language Minority Provisions of the Voting Rights Act
Congress enacted the language minority provisions because it found that:
[T]hrough the use of various practices and procedures, citizens of language
minorities have been effectively excluded from participation in the electoral
process. Among other factors, the denial of the right to vote of such minority
group citizens is ordinarily directly related to the unequal educational
opportunities afforded them resulting in high illiteracy and low voting
participation. 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,
and by prescribing other remedial devices.
Congress adopted the language minority provisions of Sections 4(f)(4) and 203 of the Voting Rights Act in 1975.
Congress extended these provisions in 1982, 1992, and 2006. Section 4(f)(4) will expire in 2031, and Section
203 will expire in 2032.
The language minority provisions are contained in
Sections 203 and Section 4(f)(4)
of the Voting Rights Act.
Sections 203 and 4(f)(4) require that when a covered state of political subdivision:
[P]rovides registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or
other materials of 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.
The requirements of the law are straightforward: all election information that is
available in English must also be available in the minority language so that all citizens will
have an effective opportunity to register, learn the details of the elections, and cast a free
and effective ballot.
Covered jurisdictions are determined by the Census Bureau after each census based upon a
formula set out in the Voting Rights Act. The most recent determinations
were made on October 13, 2011.
Covered language minorities are limited to American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives, and
Spanish-heritage citizens - the groups that Congress found to have faced barriers in the political
Section 203 Coverage Formula
A jurisdiction is covered under Section 203 where the number of United States citizens of
voting age is a single language group within the jurisdiction:
- Is more than 10,000, or
- Is more than five percent of all voting age citizens, or
- 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
Guidance for Local Officials
The Civil Rights Division offers extensive guidance to local election officials on how to
comply with Section 203. The guidance is not prescriptive: election systems vary widely across
the United States, as do the needs and circumstances of language minority communities. Instead,
the Division has identified both guiding principles and practical suggestions for local election
officials to pursue with their local language minority communities to serve them effectively and
efficiently. The Attorney General has published guidelines entitled "Implementation of the
Provisions of the Voting Rights Act Regarding Language Minority Groups." 28 C.F.R. Part 55.
Language Minority Guidelines Online:
Language Minority Brochure
The Division has published a plain language brochure that
offers practical steps for achieving compliance. These brochures are also printed in the
In addition to guidelines, brochures, and correspondence, the Division has held meetings with
state and local election officials and minority community members in scores of covered
jurisdictions to explain the law, answer questions, and work to foster the implementation of
effective programs. Division personnel also made presentations and answered questions at
numerous conferences of state and local election officials and non-governmental organizations.
Investigation of Language Minority Cases
The Voting Section has been systematically requesting voter registration lists and
bilingual poll official assignment data from all covered jurisdictions, beginning with the
largest in terms of population. Using lists of Spanish, Vietnamese, and other surnames,
the Voting Section is able to identify polling places that appear to have large numbers of
language minority voters and ascertain at a glance whether these polling places are served
by a sufficient number of bilingual poll officials.
The Section also is systematically looking at the full range of information provided by
covered jurisdictions to voters in English - not just the ballot and election pamphlets
themselves, but also newspaper notices required by state law, website information, and other
election information - and determining whether the same information is being made available
to each language minority community and whether the translated materials are actually provided
in polling places and made available to voters.
The Voting Section monitors elections as needed to determine whether local programs are
being implemented effectively, and whether language minority citizens are being treated
with the courtesy due to all voters.
Although the United States actively works with covered jurisdictions to obtain compliance,
it has, when necessary, filed litigation and
sought judicial enforcement.