Remarks as Delivered
Thank you so much for that very kind introduction, and many thanks to the Democracy Fund for inviting me to participate in this event and for convening this virtual summit. It is a pleasure and an honor to be here today.
Protecting and promoting the right to vote is deeply rooted in the Justice Department’s founding. The department is committed to ensuring that all eligible voters can cast a vote in our country; ensuring that all lawful votes are counted; and ensuring that every voter has access to accurate information. Enforcement of federal voting rights laws continues to be a top priority for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. To that end, under Attorney General Garland’s leadership, the department significantly increased the division’s enforcement staff for protecting the right to vote.
As head of the Civil Rights Division, I oversee three sections whose work touches directly on these issues. Our Voting Section enforces the civil provisions of statutes like the Voting Rights Act, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, the National Voter Registration Act, the Help America Vote Act, and the Civil Rights Acts of both 1960 and 1964. Our Disability Rights Section works on issues involving voting by citizens with disabilities, particularly issues like polling place or voting accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And our Criminal Section has jurisdiction over election-related crimes that involve racial discrimination or intimidation targeting protected minority groups.
And the Civil Rights Division has had an incredible busy season. In recent months, we have issued guidance about voting, worked with jurisdictions to ensure that voter registration applications are processed appropriately and that polling places are made accessible and we’ve also mounted litigation across the country challenging state restrictions on the right to vote.
For example, we recently issued several guidance documents, including one providing our legal interpretation on federal laws that affect methods of voting, including early voting and voting by mail. Another outlines Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act’s prohibition against policies and practices that dilute the voting strength of protected minority groups. This document is particularly important as Section 2 applies nationwide and applies to the redistricting cycle that is now underway. And a third guidance document addresses post-election audits and notes limits imposed by federal law.
Second, the Civil Rights Division has worked to promote compliance with our nation’s federal voting rights laws in a number of areas. The department recently secured a settlement with a county in New York pursuant to the Help American Vote Act and the National Voter Registration Act. In this case, we found that the Oneida County Board of Elections failed to process approximately 2,400 timely-submitted voter registration applications completed through state motor vehicle offices; we also found that officials summarily rejecting nearly 1,800 provisional ballots cast during the November 2020 federal election without verifying voters’ eligibility and without counting those provisional ballots cast by eligible voters. Our settlement will help ensure that voters are added to the rolls in a timely manner going forward and ensure that provisional ballots are issued, where appropriate, and counted. We also reached a settlement with the State of New Jersey to ensure that citizens with disabilities are given opportunities to register at paratransit agencies. And in Arkansas, we reached a settlement with a county to ensure that the county provides an accessible voting program, including accessible polling places for people with disabilities.
And of course, you may have heard about a few other pieces of litigation that the division recently filed. In June, we filed a lawsuit contending that several provisions of Georgia Senate Bill 202 were adopted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race. Our suit alleges that the cumulative and discriminatory effect of these laws—particularly on Black voters—was known to lawmakers and that lawmakers adopted the law in spite of this.
In November, we filed a lawsuit challenging Texas Senate Bill 1, which we allege improperly restricts what assistance voters who have a disability or are unable to read or write can receive. Our lawsuit also contends that Senate Bill 1 violates federal law by authorizing the rejection of mail ballots and mail ballot request forms because of certain paperwork errors or omissions that are not material to establishing a voter’s eligibility to cast a ballot.
And just last week, we filed suit against the State of Texas, alleging that its new redistricting plans for both Congress and the State House violate the Voting Rights Act by impermissibly diluting the voting strength of Latino and Black voters. We will continue monitoring redistricting efforts across the country to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
But today, I want to focus on another aspect of our work – language access at the ballot box. The department works to promote language access in a number of areas including access to the courts, access to law enforcement services and more. And our work to assure that eligible voters can cast a vote regardless of the language they speak is of central importance. I understand that this is an area of special focus for this convening.
Federal law recognizes that many American citizens have a primary language other than English, and that they may require information in their primary language in order to be informed voters and participate effectively in our representative democracy. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act – which is a law that the department enforces – is a key mechanism to ensure that voters who have only limited English proficiency are able to participate in the electoral process.
Section 203 was added to the Voting Rights Act in 1975 because Congress found that various practices had excluded language minorities from participation in the electoral process. Section 203 provides that in communities with large numbers of people with limited English proficiency, materials and information relating to the electoral process must be provided in the language of the applicable minority group, as well as in English.
States, counties, and in some instances, cities, may be covered by Section 203. Localities will be covered where there are more than 10,000 voting-age citizens—or more than 5% of the total voting age citizens in the area are members of a single language minority group who have limited English proficiency—and where the proportion of the voting age citizens in that minority language group with less than a fifth-grade education level is higher than the national average. The statute also sets out a formula for determining when a jurisdiction is required to provide language assistance to Native American voters.
Section 203 specifically focuses on language minority communities that have suffered a history of exclusion from the political process: Spanish speakers, Native Americans, Asian-Americans and Alaskan Natives. Within those language groups, the Census Bureau further identifies specific subgroups, such as Vietnamese or Navajo, depending on the community. A jurisdiction may be covered for more than one language, depending on its population.
When a jurisdiction is covered under Section 203, it needs to determine what languages or dialects are most used within the jurisdiction and will be most effective in reaching the protected voters. For example, a few counties are currently covered to serve the Asian Indian community, and that community speaks several languages. Those jurisdictions should determine the most common dialect or language spoken in their counties by that community and must provide written materials in that language (and in any other languages that may be covered within that jurisdiction). Those communities also should provide bilingual poll workers that serve multiple languages within that community.
If a state, county or city is found to be covered by Section 203 for a specific language minority group, it must provide materials and information about the electoral process in the language of the minority group. This includes but is not limited to ballots, voter registration forms, polling place notifications, instructions on how to vote by mail, as well as information provided at the polling places and the voting booths, and more. Any information or assistance that would be offered to voters in English must also be available in the required language or languages. Bilingual poll workers must be available to provide assistance. Most Native American languages historically are unwritten, so in jurisdictions with a significant Native American or Alaskan Native population, that information must be transmitted orally.
It is important that bilingual poll workers be able to assist the voter in the voting booth, if needed for the voter to effectively cast their ballot for their choice of candidates.
There are multiple points when voting assistance may be required. In addition to assistance in the voting booth, there are a few common problems for which poll workers should be prepared. First, poll workers may not be able to find the voter’s name on the registration list, because of a misspelling or because of confusion if a voter has two surnames. Bilingual poll workers can help resolve the problem because they can communicate to the voter in a language that the voter is most comfortable with. Second, a would-be voter may not be on the registration list. In that case, the bilingual poll worker can explain the situation and provide instruction in a language that the limited-English proficient voter can better understand. And third, voters may need help in understanding how the voting machine works.
Under Section 203, a successful program should be tailored to needs of the local language minority community, after close and ongoing consultation with that community. Even within the same county, what works best to reach one language minority community may not work as well to reach others in a different community. There are some common elements to successful programs, including: ongoing consultation with the language minority community; procedures to ensure accurate translations; publicity on minority language media; procedures to recruit and train bilingual poll workers, including testing for their fluency; ensuring that these workers are assigned to the locations where they are most likely to be needed; having backup procedures in case poll workers do not show up on Election Day; training all poll workers on the rights of language minority voters; procedures for updating the language program based on population shifts or other new information; procedures for oral translation and assistance; and effective record keeping.
Finally, another provision of the Voting Rights Act, Section 4(e), protects voters who were educated in Spanish in Puerto Rico, by prohibiting jurisdictions from conditioning their right to vote on their English language ability. Communities with significant Puerto Rican populations also have obligations to ensure that limited English proficient Puerto Rican voters have materials translated into Spanish and bilingual poll workers available to assist them.
Our conversation today is particularly timely. The Census Bureau releases a new list of jurisdictions that are required to provide language assistance pursuant to Section 203 every five years. The newest determinations were just released last week, on December 8. There has been steady growth in language coverage. Under the new census data, more than 330 individual jurisdictions and three states – California, Texas and Florida – are covered under Section 203. Of those, about 90 are newly covered jurisdictions, including a number of cities and towns. In addition, 12 jurisdictions that had previously been covered, including Dallas, Philadelphia and Seattle, are now covered for an additional language.
The Civil Rights Division regularly communicates with jurisdictions about their obligations under Section 203 and monitors elections throughout the country to ensure compliance with federal law, including the language minority provisions. The Civil Rights Division also brings civil legal actions to remedy violations of the language minority provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In the past 20 years, the division has brought 35 such cases under the minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act, including Section 203.
Right now, the Justice Department is reaching out to covered jurisdictions to discuss their responsibilities. We want to continue that outreach in 2022, particularly to those areas that are newly covered or that have added a new language.
If you have questions on fulfilling these requirements, we stand ready to assist and I encourage you to visit our website, which has additional information about our federal voting rights laws, or to reach out to our Voting Section if you have questions. We can be reached through the Civil Rights Division’s internet reporting portal at https://civilrights.justice.gov/ or you can call us at (800) 253-3931. We want jurisdictions to effectively serve their voters, and encourage you to reach out if you need support.
Voting is a cornerstone of our democracy and the United States is a diverse country, with citizens who speak numerous languages. All eligible voters deserve access to the ballot, and language should not stand as a barrier to participation in our democracy. Language access, including the access provided pursuant to Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, opens doors to voters who do not have proficiency in English. This is critical to ensuring a healthy democracy in which all communities can have voice and cast a meaningful ballot. As Billy McCann, an Alaska Native elder and plaintiff in successful litigation to enhance language assistance for Yup’ik speaking voters, stated: “I have said all along that all we wanted was to be able to understand what we are voting for. Now that will happen . . .” Our work ensuring that jurisdictions comply with Section 203 can help our country to fully realize one of the key tenets of our democracy – that we have a government truly elected by the people.
Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today and thank you for the important work you are leading on the ground in your communities.