Op-Ed: Defending voting rights by knocking down language barriers

Op-Ed Published in El Diario La Prensa

By Eric T. Schneiderman


Since the beginning of 2011, 19 states have either passed laws or taken legislative action making it more difficult to vote when we should be making it easier. Over generations, Americans have torn down barriers to voting in order to make our democracy more inclusive, and our government more representative of all its citizens. My office is carrying on the American tradition of tearing down barriers to the franchise by ensuring that Americans with limited knowledge of English are properly accommodated at the polls, and last week we achieved a significant victory in that effort.

According to 2010 Census data, approximately 5.5 million New Yorkers do not speak English as their primary language.  Among them are 2.7 million who primarily speak Spanish at home and 46 percent of that group don’t speak English very well. 

In order to protect the voting rights of these Spanish speaking citizens, our Civil Rights Bureau undertook a preliminary investigation in jurisdictions with significant numbers of Spanish-speaking voters to determine whether local boards of elections made bilingual materials available to their resident. While a handful of boards made bilingual materials available, we found that many boards did not. In fact, local election officials routinely fail to translate locally-produced election-related materials.

As a result, Spanish-speaking voters with limited understanding of English experience significant barriers when attempting to participate in the political process in these jurisdictions. These barriers are both an affront to our principles of inclusive democracy, and a violation of our civil rights laws.

In August, my office sent letters to election authorities in 10 electoral jurisdictions across New York, asking them to comply with the Voting Rights Act in the current election cycle—specifically section 4(e) of the Act. Section 4(e), which provides that no citizen educated in American-flag schools can be denied the right to vote because of his or her lack of English proficiency, extends important protections to Puerto Rican voters and prospective voters across the state. Failure to provide bilingual written voting materials, failure to employ Spanish-speaking poll workers, and denial of translation assistance in casting a ballot for the person of the voter's choice can all run afoul of section 4(e).

To comply with the law, jurisdictions are required to provide bilingual voting materials in communities with limited-English proficient residents.  Election-related information that is available in English must also be available in the minority language so that all citizens will have an effective opportunity to meaningfully participate, register, learn the details of the elections, and cast a free and effective ballot.  These provisions require not only a bilingual ballot on Election Day, but also bilingual voter registration forms, polling place notices, sample ballots, instructional forms, voter information pamphlets, absentee and affidavit ballots.  Written materials must be translated accurately and assistance also must be provided orally.  Bilingual poll workers may be required in certain polling sites.

In September we announced that Schenectady County was the first jurisdiction to agree to implement a robust language access program developed in coordination with our Civil Rights Bureau, and this week we announced agreements with Rockland and Ulster Counties that will help ensure that the language needs of voters are fully met in these jurisdictions as well. By tearing down language barriers at the ballot box for a significant number of our fellow citizens, we’ve taken a big step toward ensuring that all eligible voters in our state can meaningfully participate in our democracy. 

In the last two years, vetoes, referendums, court decisions, or actions by the U.S. Justice Department have blocked or curtailed efforts to restrict voting in 14 states.My office is proud to stand with those who are carrying on the great American tradition of defending and expanding the right to vote -- a right that stands at the heart of our democracy.

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