With the 2020 election approaching, United States immigrants and naturalized citizens make up one-tenth of eligible voters in the United States. The number of U.S. immigrants and naturalized citizens eligible to vote has grown by 93 percent since the year 2000, making about 23 million immigrants eligible to vote. However, more than 5 million of those immigrants have Limited English Proficiency, making it more difficult for them to vote since ballots are often written only in English.   

Carolyn Chen, LSA junior and field director for the University of Michigan chapter of College Democrats, spoke to The Daily about the issue of English-only ballots for those with LEP. 

“English-only ballots are an issue because without having multiple languages, there is covert disenfranchisement by pushing away underrepresented minorities from the polls,” Chen said. “If people are not able to understand a ballot, they are unable to vote.”

However, Congress does have a law in place that attempts to help eligible voters with LEP. In 1975, Congress passed a provision to the Voting Rights Act, known as the Minority Language Provision that serves to help those with LEP. The provision states that for jurisdictions with single-language minority groups of over 10,000 or constituting five percent of the community, assistance in electoral processes must be provided. Poll clerks and volunteers must provide voting notices, forms, ballots or assistance in the language spoken by the single-language minority group. 

The section of the Voting Rights Act sets out to help minority groups who have been historically discriminated against, including Spanish speakers, Asian immigrants, Native Americans and Alaskan natives. As of now, 263 cities, counties and jurisdictions were covered under the provision. Three townships in Michigan are covered by Section 203, including Colfax Township, Fennville and Hamtramck. 

There have been repeated problems nationally with jurisdictions failing to implement Section 203. In the past five years, the U.S. Department of Justice has filed complaints against four jurisdictions for failing to implement the provision.

Natalie Treacy, third-year Law student and member of the Michigan Voting Project, an organization that allows law students to work with those facing legal barriers when trying to vote, spoke to The Daily about the problem with jurisdictions not implementing Section 203. 

“There is a push obviously to get lost or more amenable to people who don’t speak English voting,” Treacy said. “There is a law out there. It does say you have to have election materials in more than one language if enough people in your jurisdiction speak another language. And that’s not even followed in and of itself all the time. So I would just say overall, there’s also a focus just on getting current laws to be actually enforced.” 

Jacqueline Beaudry, city clerk of Ann Arbor, wrote in a statement to The Daily about how the Ann Arbor precincts which do not meet the requirements of Section 203 plan to accommodate those whose second language is English on primary election day.

“I can tell you that Ann Arbor does not meet the federal requirements for ballots in other languages,” Beaudry said. “Most of our ESL speakers are fluent, despite English not being the first language. However, we do have a list within City Hall of translators when needed, and our northeast precinct, which has the City’s largest concentration of Chinese speakers, has a precinct chairperson who speaks Chinese.”

Chen spoke to The Daily about the importance of trying to help those with LEP get access to ballots that are in their first language. 

“Within a country where we do not even have a national language, there is no reason why we should not be holding ballots or instructions in multiple languages if it will help people in a population to have their voice heard in the government,” Chen said.

Another avenue for helping those who don’t speak English or whose second language is English is the Voting Rights Act, known as Section 208. This provision, added in 1982, states that any voter who requires assistance because of blindness, disability or inability to read or write is allowed to bring a person of his or her choice into the voting booth to assist with the voting process. 

Nick Schuler, LSA freshman and freshman chair of College Republicans, spoke to The Daily about the importance of all people having the right to vote through Section 208.

“I think if a voter is truly having trouble picking names from a list they should turn to friends and family,” Schuler said. “If that doesn’t work then we should have an online guide to help them even further before they go to the polls.” 

Going forward, the 2020 census is another way to make sure those who have LEP get more access to the electoral process. As more immigrants and naturalized citizens become officially counted by the census, their respective jurisdictions will begin to receive the benefits of Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. 

“It’s a fundamental right and you want to make sure that people can’t put up barriers for people to be able to exercise that right to vote,” Treacy said. “So ideally everyone would be able to vote even if they don’t speak English.” 

Reporter Julia Forrest can be reached at juforres@umich.edu

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