Census data brings bilingual elections to 25 states
New counties included, but overall number lower than in past
Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Yup’ik, Filipino, Japanese, Kickapoo, Navajo, Hopi, Yuma, Yaqui, Tonhono O’Odham, Pueblo, Inupait, Choctaw, Bengali, and Alaskan Athabascan.
Today there are dozens of languages other than English in which voting materials must be provided in half the states across the country.
While that may seem like a lot of languages in a lot of states, the new Census Bureau determinations for localities that fall under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act , released late last week, are actually down from a decade ago—even as the nation’s population has grown overall in the past 10 years.
Under the new Section 203 designations, 248 cities and counties in 25 states must offer voting assistance in a language other than English. Following the 2000 Census, 296 jurisdictions in 30 states were required to provide language assistance.
Even with fewer localities falling under Section 203 jurisdiction, there are still many of areas that are new to the designation with Spanish being the predominant language in many of the new jurisdictions.
“We were not sure if we were going to qualify,” said John Tuteur, registrar of voters for Napa County, Calif. “I think we were only surprised though that not more counties were added.”
Tuteur said his office has been voluntarily providing some Spanish-language materials a while back, but that now the office would be working with vendors and outreach people to prepare for the bilingual materials that first need to be offered in June 2012.
Salt Lake County is only the second county in Utah to fall under Section 203 and the first to be required to offer materials in Spanish. The county will begin offering voter registration in Spanish on Jan. 1, 2012 and their first bilingual election will be in June.
“We are going to confer with counties where Section 203 has already been implemented. We can learn a lot from them and their experience,” said Clerk Sherrie Swensen. “We have established a committee to begin the process and are meeting this week.”
Swensen said the ballot vendor used by the county works with many other Section 203 jurisdictions and she hopes to use them as a starting point as well for what the county will need to do to be ready.
One place jurisdictions will be able to turn to for help is the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC). The EAC provides numerous language assistance materials including voter guides in multiple languages.
For some counties, Section 203 designation isn’t new, but the language may be. Ten years ago, Sacramento County in California was required to provide elections materials in Spanish, this time it’s Chinese in addition to Spanish.
“Our first effort will be to identify where our Chinese voters are to start our outreach efforts. We will need community support for this project,” said Jill LaVine, registrar of voters. “Since this is our first “character based” language we are learning what our election management software will accommodate. We are looking at ballot layout – do we put all three languages on one ballot? Our ballot printer has been notified of the change.”
LaVine said her office has already been in touch with other California counties that provide materials in Chinese to see what sort of helpful hints they can offer.
The county’s previous experience with Section 203 designation is also helping LaVine budget for the new language, which she estimates should cost about $200,000 to provide all the necessary materials and hire all the necessary staff.
Some states — like Virginia and Wisconsin — will see their first Section 203 designations.
“To be quite honest, we've been so busy the past eight months that I hadn't given the issue much thought. We had the two spring elections, a statewide recount in April, two recall elections, and we were busy working on redistricting and it's impact on our office,” said Susan Edman, executive director of Milwaukee’s election commission. “Had I'd given it some thought, I would not have been as surprised as I was when I heard the news.”
Although many of the new jurisdictions have until their 2012 primaries to prepare, for some, those primaries are sooner rather than later and the push is on to get materials printed and more importantly get bilingual poll workers.
“I’m a little concerned,” Edman said. “The bottom line is we have to get it done. If necessary we’ll reach out to corporations in Milwaukee and ask that they allow their bilingual employees to work the polls without penalty.”
In Fairfax County, Va., the designation and more-to-the point, the timing of the designation came as a surprise. The county has an election coming up in November.
“While we were aware of the possibility, we were not expecting the designation necessarily, since 10 years ago we also thought it might happen in Virginia and it did not,” said Cameron Quinn, executive director of the Fairfax County board of elections. “Also, and more to the point, when we got past mid-September, when absentee ballots must be sent 45 days out, in conformity with state law, which mirrors the federal UOCAVA timelines, and then past the beginning of October, we did NOT expect that so close to an election we would suddenly be required to comply.”
Cameron said the timing was a huge surprise and that in light of the already complicated elections due to the local races schedule and redistricting, she felt it was irresponsible.
That being said, Cameron did say that the county will do everything it can to make sure it complies with the federal requirements by November.
“We are doing everything we can to be ready, while still trying to ensure accurate and fair elections. We are still trying to determine what all we can provide – it will not be everything that can be provided in time for next November’s elections, but we hope all the key election day voter material & ballot translations will be finished,” Cameron said. “We are also trying to shift election officers to maximize bilingual assistance in those polling places most likely in need of such assistance. There will be back up phone translation service available anywhere there is a need that is not being met by a polling place election official.”
Asian-Indian languages added for first time
For the first time, three jurisdictions — Cook County, Ill., Los Angeles County and the Borough of Queens in New York — will be required to provide language assistance in an Asian-Indian language. What that language will be, remains a bit of a puzzle.
With more than 100 different dialects and languages that fall under “Asian-Indian,” which language will be required of each jurisdiction remains to be seen. The jurisdictions are working with officials from the Department of Justice to determine which languages — possibilities include Hindi, Pashto, Urdu and Bengali.
In Cook County, the Asian-Indian language designation was a bit of surprise. According to a spokeswoman with the clerk’s office, the elections division was anticipating a designation of Korean, not Asian-Indian.
The county’s election director is currently working with the Department of Justice to determine which Asian-Indian language the county will need to provide elections materials in and to determine which precincts need the language assistance.
“We have been doing Spanish and Chinese and Korean voluntarily,” explained Gail Siegel, a spokeswoman with the county clerk’s office. “We’re assuming it’s just going to be a few precincts, but we’re really at the beginning stages of this.”
The county, which has several staff members proficient in Asian-Indian languages and a full-time staff member dedicated to minority language work and community outreach, needs to be ready by the March 2012 primary.
Siegel said the county will work with local nonprofits and NGOs to do outreach and find any necessary volunteers, especially poll workers.
“We have already identified a number of community groups to do outreach to,” Siegel said. “Our minority language/community outreach person is already aggressively working on this.”
Siegel noted that while there will be some additional costs associated with the new language designation, because the county already has protocols in place for language-assistance, those additional costs will be minimal.
Jeannie Layson, a spokeswoman for the EAC was not sure at this time whether or not the agency would provide voter guides in the newly required languages.
“Expanding the language accessibility program is most likely a policy issue that should be determined by the commission,” Layson said. “Until we get a quorum, we cannot move forward with a program expansion.”
Lakota language assistance no longer required
While new Asian-Indian languages are being added for the first time, one American Indian language has disappeared from the list altogether. No longer will any jurisdictions have to provide language assistance in Lakota.
For South Dakota, which represented the largest number of covered jurisdictions, no longer falling under Section 203 provides a greater opportunity for local collaboration.
“I view the removal of federal oversight as less of a problem and more of an opportunity,” said Secretary of State Jason Gant. “Instead of expensive federal mandates, we will be working at the local level with tribal leaders to achieve local solutions while saving taxpayer dollars.”
Gant said that his office is working with counties and tribal leaders to ensure that even though South Dakota counties are no longer federally required to provide assistance that no one is disenfranchised.
“We have the opportunity to move past federal government solutions on federally mandated language requirements,” Gant said in a statement. “Working with South Dakota tribal leaders, we can find reasonable answers to ensure that Lakota speaking Native American voters – many of them elderly – are served by the electoral process with simplicity and dignity.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.