U.S. Judge Blocks Texas Law That Makes It Harder for Non-English Speakers to Vote

by | August 15, 2016

By Chuck Lindell

A federal judge Friday blocked Texas from enforcing a state law that limits the availability of interpreters in polling places, ruling that it violates protections guaranteed by the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman of Austin came in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Mallika Das, who was born in India and who, in October 2014, brought her son into a Round Rock polling station to act as an interpreter because she had limited proficiency in English.

Officials at the Williamson County polling station, however, barred Saurabh Das from helping his mother, relying on a state election law that requires interpreters to be registered to vote in the same county as the person they intend to help.

Because Saurabh Das was registered in Travis County, his mother had to vote without his help.

In a summary judgment relying on briefs and a hearing held Monday, Pitman ruled that the residency requirement violated Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees voters the right to be helped by a person of their choice if they need assistance because of blindness, disability or inability to read or write.

To enjoy the same opportunity to vote as other citizens, Pitman wrote, limited-language voters must be able to navigate polling stations and communicate with election officers.

"They must be able to understand and fill out any required forms, and to understand and to answer any questions directed at them by election officers. And they must be able to do so with the assistance of a person whom they trust," the judge added.

In addition to voiding the law on interpreters at the ballot box, Pitman gave state lawyers seven days to provide him with "additional remedies" needed to protect the rights of limited-language voters. Lawyers for Das will have another seven days to respond to the state's suggestions.

The lawsuit was filed on Mallika Das' behalf by the Organization of Chinese Americans-Greater Houston, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the social, political and economic well-being of Asian-Americans and Pacific-Americans.

Das, however, died before the case could be completed, but Pitman rejected state lawyers' request to dismiss the lawsuit, ruling that the organization had standing to continue in her place.

Pitman also ordered the state to pay the organization's legal fees and court costs.

(c)2016 Austin American-Statesman, Texas