Posted on May 12, 2022

Immigrant Communities Push for More Non-English Ballots

Matt Vasilogambros, Pew, May 10, 2022

With primary elections well underway across the country, voting rights and immigrant advocates are raising the alarm about a lack of language assistance for voters who aren’t fluent in English.

While federal law requires counties with a certain percentage of non-English-speaking citizens to provide ballots in a limited number of languages, advocates contend the federal threshold is too high and does not cover enough languages, leaving voters in many immigrant communities unable to fully understand election materials.

This struggle is on display in Hall County, Georgia, a community that is 29% Latino but doesn’t have to provide ballots in Spanish because it doesn’t meet the federal lack of English proficiency criteria. Local officials also have refused to voluntarily provide Spanish ballots for voters, which has been frustrating for Jerry Gonzalez, CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, a nonprofit based just outside of Atlanta that advances civil engagement in the Latino community.

“There’s no reason why counties can’t better serve their changing demographics with the tools they need for a better voting process,” he said. {snip}


For Americans whose native language is not English, navigating a jargon-filled ballot can be intimidating; it’s already complicated for the average English-speaking voter. But adding new language assistance can be challenging for many counties that might not be able to afford printing ballots in several different languages. Still, more voting rights and immigrant advocates are calling on local jurisdictions to voluntarily provide language assistance.

Voting rights advocates have been able to make slow progress. While Gwinnett County, northeast of Atlanta, is the only jurisdiction in Georgia federally mandated to provide non-English ballots and other election materials—it offers them in Spanish—DeKalb County does it voluntarily. Prior to the 2020 presidential election, leaders in DeKalb County, which is just east of Atlanta, decided to provide ballots in Korean and Spanish.


In December, the U.S. Census Bureau released the list of 331 jurisdictions that meet the threshold laid out in Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees language assistance in the voting process. The number of jurisdictions covered by federal protections jumped by 68—the largest ever increase. California, Florida and Texas also must provide Spanish-language ballots in every statewide election.

Every five years, the census updates the list of counties that meet specific federal criteria: Either more than 5% of voting-age citizens or more than 10,000 voting-age citizens must have limited English proficiency, according to American Community Survey data. To qualify for language assistance, counties also must have a higher rate of voting-age citizens with limited-English proficiency and a lower rate of people with a fifth-grade education, both compared with the national average.


Some voting rights advocates argue the federal criteria for language assistance should be expanded. The Voting Rights Act provides language assistance only to voters “who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaska Natives, or of Spanish heritage.” That leaves out voters who are from Africa or the Middle East.

This has been difficult for voters in Dearborn, Michigan, an Arab immigrant bastion in the Detroit area, where more than half of the population speaks a language other than English at home. Seeing this gap in English proficiency, community leaders there are attempting to adopt Arabic-language ballots. But this effort has been challenging.


Translating election materials and printing ballots in different languages can be costly, especially for cash-strapped election offices. Local election officials often lament that a shortage of resources can hinder ballot access and security efforts. Additional federal funding from Congress could be used for these language efforts, advocates say.

Other communities have not waited on a federal mandate before they offered ballots in different languages.

In Cook County, Illinois, home of Chicago and where 35% of residents speak a language other than English at home, local officials enacted an ordinance that expanded, beginning in 2020, the criteria by which the county offers ballots and election materials in other languages.

While the county is required by the federal government to provide ballots in Chinese, Hindi and Spanish, the county voluntarily added eight more languages to its list: Arabic, Gujarati, Korean, Polish, Russian, Tagalog, Ukrainian and Urdu. The statute requires the county to provide a native-language ballot if there are more than 13,000 speakers in the area.

In California, the second-most racially diverse state in the country behind Hawaii, nearly 45% of residents speak a language other than English at home, among them more than 200 languages and dialects. The secretary of state mandates counties add additional language assistance that goes beyond federal requirements.

Los Angeles County already is required by the feds to offer translated election materials in Cambodian, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese. The state, however, requires that the county also provides ballots in Armenian, Bengali, Burmese, Farsi, Gujarati, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Mongolian, Russian, Telugu and Thai.