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Why Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act doesn’t cover certain languages: NPR


Volunteers participate in a 2004 voter awareness event in Dearborn, Michigan, hosted by the Arab American Institute. Although there is no federal requirement for Arabic-language ballots, the City of Dearborn recently began requiring that election materials be translated into Arabic.

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Why Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act doesn’t cover certain languages: NPR

Volunteers participate in a 2004 voter awareness event in Dearborn, Michigan, hosted by the Arab American Institute. Although there is no federal requirement for Arabic-language ballots, the City of Dearborn recently began requiring that election materials be translated into Arabic.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Among the minority language groups protected by the Voting Rights Act, you won’t find voters like Shaima Mohammed.

In 1975, Congress expanded this landmark civil rights law in an attempt to remove barriers preventing “minority language citizens” from voting. And for nearly half a century, Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act has required some state and local governments to provide ballots, registration forms and other election materials in addition to the ‘English.

But not all languages ​​are covered by the protections of Section 203.

And that has often left Arabic-speaking American citizens with limited English proficiency, like Mohammed, alone when trying to vote. In 2020, she wanted to vote in the presidential election and turned to a neighbor and a cousin for help.

“Some people don’t have anyone at home to translate,” says Mohammed, who grew up in Yemen and took English classes at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn, Michigan.

Exactly where the federal government needs multilingual voter information is determined by the Census Bureau, which uses complicated formulas involving English proficiency and school achievement rates to produce an updated list every five years.

The latest list, released in December, shows that the federal mandate for American Indian language assistance has grown to five more states and Spanish coverage has been added to Cuyahoga County in Ohio. There is also growth in areas needed to help Bangladeshi, Chinese, Filipino, Hmong and Vietnamese voters.

With Arabic, Haitian Creole and other languages ​​not protected by Section 203 becoming more common in U.S. households, some suffrage advocates have called on the federal government to expand its information requirements multilingual voters.

“Information is power, isn’t it? said Marvin Hernandez, Virginia Regional Election Director for CASA in Action, an advocacy group focused on mobilizing immigrants. “We need to keep fighting to have more languages ​​included in the electoral process as well. This is something we need to see in order to see inclusivity at all levels and with all demographics.”

Why Arabic speakers and Haitian Creoles are not covered

According to Section 203, protected minority language groups are limited to “persons who are Native American, Asian American, Alaska Native, or of Spanish descent.”

The Census Bureau relies on race and ethnicity data as a “proxy” to identify protected language groups, the agency confirmed to NPR in a statement.

“This means that people who speak certain languages ​​like Arabic are classified by race” based on federal standards, the office said. And these standards officially classify people from the Middle East or North Africa as white.

Some scholars classify Arabic as an “Afro-Asiatic” language group, but the bureau does not, classifying it not among Asian languages, but “all other languages”.

As for Haitian Creole – which was at the center of a suffrage lawsuit in Florida’s Miami-Dade County after the 2000 election – the bureau considers it an Indo-European language and its speakers do not part of the linguistic minority groups protected under section 203.

Linguistic minority status was determined with a discrimination record

When Congress was preparing to add the language assistance requirements of Section 203 to the Voting Rights Act, some lawmakers considered broader coverage.

“One of the arguments that was made was that every language should be eligible for coverage. And there were serious concerns about that because it would raise constitutional issues,” said Jim Tucker, a human rights attorney. vote on the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. Under Law who wrote about the history of Section 203 in the book The battle for bilingual ballots: linguistic minorities and political access under the Voting Rights Act.

Passed during post-Civil War Reconstruction, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments give Congress the power to pass laws ensuring that every person is treated equally under the law and that no citizen is denied the right to vote because of his race.

Ultimately, lawmakers ruled that Section 203 would only require language assistance in federal, state, and local elections for groups for which there is historical evidence showing they faced election discrimination. and educational. The aim was to remedy, as the legislation says, “the inequality of educational opportunities offered to them, which results in a high rate of illiteracy and low voter turnout”.

Angelo Ancheta, a civil rights attorney who has also written on Section 203, notes that any discussion of expanding minority language groups protected under this unfunded federal mandate would have to face practical considerations.

“It’s not cheap to produce ballots in other languages,” says Ancheta. “There are a lot of logistical issues. We can’t ignore them.”

Over the years, Congress had the opportunity to expand protected language groups when Section 203 — which is currently set to expire in 2032 — was renewed.

The Senate’s failed efforts to pass new suffrage bills earlier this year included proposals that could have helped ensure oral assistance in the unwritten languages ​​of American Indians and Alaska Natives. . (No bill would have expanded federally protected linguistic minority groups to include speakers of Arabic or Haitian Creole.)

But no new federal requirements have been passed — and Ancheta doesn’t expect to see any in the near future.

“I suspect this type of issue is one where polarization in Congress won’t be helpful in advancing new legislation,” Ancheta said.

There are local efforts to provide more multilingual ballots

While there are federal requirements for language assistance, Tucker cautions that voters have found a range of compliance among state and local governments across the country.

“There are a lot of them who don’t even meet the requirements,” says Tucker, who served in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division polling division and currently chairs a committee of outside advisers to the Census Bureau. “There are jurisdictions in some cases that go beyond the requirements.”

Why Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act doesn’t cover certain languages: NPR

According to local law in Miami-Dade County in Florida, precincts with significant shares of Haitian American voters are required to offer ballots in Haitian Creole, in addition to English and Spanish.

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In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, home to the largest Haitian immigrant population in the United States, precincts with a significant share of Haitian American voters are required to provide ballots in Creole, plus federally required English and Spanish.

“It’s a good thing that in Miami-Dade County it’s a fact. But that’s not the case in many other jurisdictions,” says Gepsie Metellus, co-founder and executive director of Sant La Haitian Neighborhood. Center in North Miami, Florida.

Metellus says expanding federal language assistance requirements to include Haitian Creole would help more U.S. citizens feel comfortable with the voting process.

“It’s an invitation to vote. It’s an embrace, an acknowledgment that this population is part of the fabric of America,” adds Metellus, who ran unsuccessfully in 2020 for a seat on the Miami County Commission- Dad.

Suffrage advocates in Michigan, where some of the country’s largest Arab-American communities have lived for decades, are organizing for more formal recognition of the needs of Arabic-speaking citizens.

“When we explained to them that they could vote early, that they didn’t need a driver’s license to vote, they had no idea. And it’s all due to language barriers,” says Nada Al-Hanooti, ​​executive director of Emgage’s Michigan. chapter, on his advocacy group’s outreach efforts to citizens who are not proficient in English.

For the next primary election in August, ballots in Arabic will be available to voters in Dearborn, Michigan, after a push from community groups and city council member Mustapha Hammoud, who introduced a resolution earlier this year that requires election materials in English. and any language spoken by at least 10,000 or 5% of Dearborn residents. In Hamtramck, Mich., another Detroit suburb, city council members also recently passed a resolution regarding Arabic election materials.

For Mohammed – the Arabic-speaking voter from Dearborn who has turned to friends and family for help in gaining access to an English ballot in 2020 – it will be a major change that will make it easier to exercise his right to vote. vote.

“It’s a good feeling,” Mohammed said of the vote. “You feel like you’re part of this country. You’re doing something right.”

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