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Minority Language Citizens

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act

The following excerpt is from the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Voting Section:

The United States is a diverse land with a government selected by the votes of its citizens. Federal law recognizes that many Americans rely heavily on languages other than English, and that they require information in minority languages in order to be informed voters and participate effectively in our representative democracy. Many provisions of federal law protect the voting rights of minority language Americans. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act is the keystone. Congress has mandated minority language ballots in some jurisdictions since 1975, with the most recent changes in the method of determining which jurisdictions must provide minority language materials and information becoming law in 1992. 

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act
When Congress amended the Voting Rights Act in 1975 by adding Section 203, it found that "through the use of various practices and procedures, citizens of language minorities have been effectively excluded from participation in the electoral process ... The Congress declares that, in order to enforce the guarantees of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, it is necessary to eliminate such discrimination by prohibiting these practices."

Section 203 provides: "Whenever any State or political subdivision [covered by the section] provides registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots, it shall provide them in the language of the applicable minority group as well as in the English language."

What jurisdictions are covered under Section 203?
The law covers those localities where there are more than 10,000 or over 5 percent of the total voting age citizens in a single political subdivision (usually a county, but a township or municipality in some states) who are members of a single minority language group, have depressed literacy rates, and do not speak English very well. Political subdivisions also may be covered through a separate determination for Indian Reservations. Determinations are based on data from the most recent' Census, and the determinations are made by the Director of the Census. The list of jurisdictions covered under Section 203 can be found at the web site of the Voting Section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

What languages are covered under Section 203?
Section 203 targets those language minorities that have suffered a history of exclusion from the political process: Spanish, Asian, Native American, and Alaskan Native. The Census Bureau identifies specific language groups for specific jurisdictions. In some jurisdictions, two or more language minority groups are present in numbers sufficient to trigger the Section 203 requirements.

What elections are covered?
Section 203 requirements apply to all elections conducted within the bounds of the jurisdiction identified as covered by Section 203 by the Census Bureau. The law applies to primary and general elections, bond elections and referenda, and to elections of each municipality, school district or special purpose district within the designated jurisdiction.

What information must be provided in the minority language?
All information that is provided in English also must be provided in the minority language as well. This covers not only the ballot, but all election information - voter registration, candidate qualifying, polling place notices, sample ballots, instructional forms, voter information pamphlets, and absentee and regular ballots - from details about voter registration through the actual casting of the ballot, and the questions that regularly come up in the polling place. Written materials must be translated accurately, of course. Assistance also must be provided orally. Most Native American languages historically are unwritten, so that all information must be transmitted orally. Oral communications are especially important in any situation where literacy is depressed. Bilingual poll workers will be essential in at least some precincts on election day, and there should be trained personnel in the courthouse or city hall who can answer questions in the minority language, just as they do for English-speaking voters.




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