About Language Minority Voting Rights

  • The Language Minority Provisions of the Voting Rights Act
  • Legal Requirements
  • Covered Jurisdictions
  • Section 203 Coverage Formula
  • Language Minority Guidelines
  • Language Minority Brochures
  • Correspondence
  • Outreach
  • Enforcement Activities
  • Investigation of Language Minority Cases
  • Litigation

The Language Minority Provisions of the Voting Rights Act

Congress passed 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 the Voting Rights Act in 1975 for a period of ten years, then extended them in 1982 for ten year and in 1992 for fifteen years.

Legal Requirements

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.

Praise for local elections officials from a San Diego County voter -

I'm a naturalized citizen now, born in the Philippines and it just put a smile to my face as well as the rest of the people in our household when we get those ballots in Tagalog. We DON'T even have those in the country I came from so the more I appreciate all the efforts of you guys put into making sure every eligible citizen are able to understand and get informed with regards to all the candidates and all the measures by sending them tools in their native languages. America is truly the best country in the world to live in...Proud to be a U.S. Citizen...Thanks to all of you and keep up the good work.  (Courtesy of San Diego County)

Covered Jurisdictions

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 July 26, 2002.

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 process.

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 practicial 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.  Please note that 28 C.F.R. Part 55 has not yet been updated to reflect the July 26, 2002, determinations by the Director of the Bureau of the Census pursuant to Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.

Language Minority Guidelines Online:    (HTML 57K)      (PDF 84K)

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 following languages:

   En Español   Chinese   Japanese   Korean   Vietnamese   Tagalog

Correspondence

On July 26, 2002, when the Director of the Census announced of which jurisdictions were covered under Section 203 based on the 2000 Census, the Civil Rights Division mailed formal notice and detailed information on the compliance to each of the 296 covered jurisdictions across the United States.

On August 31, 2004, Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta mailed letters to over 400 Section 203 and 4(f)(4) jurisdictions reminding them of their obligations to provide minority language assistance, and offering guidance on how to achieve compliance.

Assistant Attorney General Acosta noted the usefulness to local officials of establishing charts of all election information provided in English, and matching each item with what it does in each covered minority language; and setting up a similar chart matching the current number of language minority voters in each precinct with the number of bilingual poll officials. Both charts indicate possible gaps in compliance at a glance.

The 2004 mailing to the Section 4(f)(4) counties was the first blanket mailing to these counties, which include tens of thousands of voters who require Spanish language materials and information in order to vote effectively, since shortly after the original designations in 1975.

Outreach

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. Such outreach is an important part of the Division's law enforcement effort. Any request for a Division speaker should take the form of a letter to the Assistant Attorney General.

Enforcement Activities

The Voting Section has recently reached agreements with a number of counties across the United States, including the first actions ever taken under the Voting Rights Act on behalf of Filipino and Vietnamese voters.

Each agreement provides comprehensive relief for language minority voters, and includes innovative procedures to involve local language minority voters in shaping programs to serve them. The agreements also provide tools to local election officials to recruit large numbers of new bilingual poll officials and oversee their work.

Enforcement actions undertaken by the Voting Section in 2004 have achieved comprehensive language minority programs for more citizens with limited English proficiency than all prior lawsuits in the history of the Act combined.

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.

Litigation

Although the United States actively works with covered jurisdictions to obtain compliance, it has, when necessary, filed litigation and sought judicial enforcement. Since May of 2004, the Civil Rights Division has filed and successfully resolved as many Section 203 cases as it had filed in the previous eight years. The cases filed since May 2004 have provided comprehensive election information plans to more language minority voters than all previous Section 203 cases combined.

CASES RAISING CLAIMS UNDER THE LANGUAGE MINORITY PROVISIONS
OF THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT *
  • United States v. Ventura County (C.D. Cal. 2004)

  •    Complaint       Consent Decree   
  • United States v. Yakima County (E.D. Wash. 2004)

  •    Complaint  (PDF)
       Consent Decree  (PDF)    (HTML)   (En Espanol)
  • United States v. Suffolk County (E.D.N.Y. 2004)

  •    Complaint  (PDF)  
       Consent Decree  (PDF)
  • United States v. San Diego County (S.D. Cal. 2004)

  •    Complaint  (PDF)   (HTML)
       Memorandum of Agreement  (PDF)   (HTML)
  • United States v. San Benito County (N.D. Cal. 2004)

  •    Complaint  (PDF)    (HTML)
       Consent Decree   (PDF)    (HTML)
  • United States v. Brentwood Union Free School District (E.D.N.Y. 2003)
  • United States v. Berks County (E.D. Pa. 2003)
  • United States v. Orange County (M.D. Fla. 2002)
  • United States v. City of Lawrence (D. Mass. 1998)
  • United States v. Passaic City and Passaic County (D. N.J. 1999)
  • United States v. Bernalillo County (D. N.M. 1998)
  • United States v. Alameda County (N.D. Cal. 1995)
  • United States v. Socorro County (D. N.M. 1993)
  • United States v. Cibola County (D. N.M. 1993)
  • United States v. Metropolitan Dade County (S.D. Fla. 1993)
  • United States v. State of Arizona (D. Ariz. 1988)
  • United States v. State of New Mexico and Sandoval County (D. N.M. 1988)
  • United States v. McKinley County (D. N.M. 1986)
  • United States v. San Juan County (D. Utah 1983)
  • United States v. San Juan County (D. N.M. 1979)
  • United States v. City and County of San Francisco (N.D. Cal. 1978)
* Please note that some of these files are in pdf format only, if you have difficulty accessing the forms because of a disability, please contact the Voting Section at 1-800-253-3931 to receive a printed copy of the form. >
Updated August 6, 2015

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