Election materials in the U.S. are not only available in English. In 25 states, 248 counties provide ballots and other materials in a variety of languages, and they are required by law to do so.
This can be expensive for counties, and some argue they should not have to pay the bill. Others say it is a constitutional right of citizens who don’t speak English.
Every 10 years the U.S. Census releases a list of counties that are required to provide ballots in different languages. The Voting Rights Act says that if 10,000 or five percent of citizens in a county speak a given non-English language, that county is required to provide election materials in that language. Ballots were provided in nine Asian languages throughout the U.S. this year.
Dan Hopkins, assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, has studied the effects on Spanish-language voters.
“What I can tell you from that research is that it’s clear that citizens who speak only Spanish are more likely to turn out and more likely to vote in cases where they have access to Spanish-language ballots,” Hopkins said.
Los Angeles County in California was required to provide ballots not only in Spanish, but in Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. Three languages were new this year: Khmer, Thai and Hindi.
The county provides other election materials in other languages in addition to ballots, said Efrain Escobedo, manager of government of affairs for the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters. They translate outreach materials, sample ballots and vote-by-mail requests, and hire bilingual poll workers for Election Day.
“Our immediate reaction was, let’s get to work,” Escobedo said. “We had been seeing these changes come, so we knew where our needs were and had already started to build relationships and build networks. I think the Census Determinations simply made them official.”
The county starts by analyzing the needs of the community and building a translation glossary for nuanced election terminology, Escobedo said.
Unlike other counties that will be providing language ballots for the first time this year, Los Angeles County already had a system in place for implementing the law, including the Community Voter Outreach Committee, comprised of over 200 community organizations.
“That infrastructure was paramount for us implementing these new languages,” Escobedo said.
One of these communities is the Thai Community Development Center, founded 18 years ago by Chanchanit Martorell. She was an active force in making sure Thai was on the ballot this year.
“We, as Thai-Americans, are really, through this act of voting, asserting our own community consciousness," Martorell said. "And we are actually also saying that we exist.” She and the Thai CDC worked on a national Census mobilization effort to get a complete count of all Thais nationwide.
“There’s a whole fear level that we had to help them overcome and made sure that we were very clear that it would not hurt them in any way to fill out the Census,” Martorell said. “That bumped up our Census numbers and we met the threshold for the materials to be translated.”
With Thai is on the ballot, the Thai CDC was working with the county to get the word out. Their project coordinator, Andreu Neri, worked on voter registration and education with various Thai organizations.
“Working through the Thai CDC, we’ve built stock within the Thai community,” Neri said. “They recognize the community development center as a beneficiary. So through that, there’s this level of trust I think the Thai community has. It’s a very interconnected network.”
While the Thai CDC receives funding for its voting campaign from private Asian-American foundations, the Los Angeles County Registrar was responsible for the cost of producing election materials. The sample ballots alone added up to around half a million dollars, Escobedo said.
“It’s a significant expense,” he said. “But even in these tough economic times, you really can’t put a price tag on democracy and that the less people that are participating, especially in times when we’re making very important decisions, I think it’s more expensive in the long run to create classes of citizens who aren’t able to exercise their fundamental right.”
Hopkins of Georgetown said cost can factor into the argument against providing ballots in these languages.
“These costs in the grand scheme of things are not very large,” he said. “But of course, in an era of fiscal austerity, in an era when it’s hard to find money to do lots of things that we want to do, the costs are going to be one potential issue.”
Republican Representative Mike Coffman from Colorado argued that mass printing and distribution of dual language ballots were often wasted. He has requested that the Department of Justice only require counties to provide dual language ballots upon request—what he calls a “less costly but equally effective method of compliance.”
Hopkins explained both sides of the argument.
“I think some of the more compelling arguments against the provision of ballots in other languages would argue that American politics at all levels takes places in English,” he said. “The concern then is how are voters able to meaningfully participate if they’re not following the debates themselves in that language.”
The viewpoint in favor of providing foreign language ballots was that immigrants can become U.S. citizens without speaking English, Hopkins said.
“Current U.S. immigration policy allows a good number of people into this country without having to pass a language test,” he said. “In order to meaningfully vote, the argument would have it, you need to have access to ballots in your native language. Some might argue as well that such voters would be less prone to manipulation.”
Democratic Representative Judy Chu from California, was on that side of the argument.
“This is a very good thing and in fact many of our current laws do make it easier for people to vote,” Chu said. “It’s these kinds of measures that can certainly help to empower immigrants so that they can participate in the American system.”
Escobedo of L.A. County agreed.
“I think in the midst of this election, it’s something that’s often overlooked,” Escobedo said. “But it’s so critical in terms of really having or sustaining a vibrant democracy.”