Voting Interpreter Case a Win for Non-Native English Speakers and a Loss for Texas

by | August 18, 2017

By Alexa Ura

Texas ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act by restricting the interpretation assistance English-limited voters may receive at the ballot box, a federal appeals court found.

In an opinion issued Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an obscure provision of the Texas Election Code that requires interpreters helping someone cast a ballot to also be registered to vote in the same county in which they are providing help clashes with federal voting protections.

That Texas law, the court found, violates a less-known section of the Voting Rights Act under which any voter who needs assistance because of visual impairments, disabilities or literacy skills can be helped in casting a ballot by the person of their choice, as long as it’s not their employer or a union leader.

Texas had argued that its interpreter requirement was meant to be “supplemental” to the VRA, but the appellate court ruled that the state’s “limitation on voter choice” instead “impermissibly narrows” the voting rights guaranteed by federal law.

“The problem remains that the Texas provisions expressly limit the right to the act of casting a ballot,” the judges wrote. “It should go without saying that a state cannot restrict this federally guaranteed right by enacting a statute tracking its language, then defining terms more restrictively than as federally defined.”

The case could affect thousands of Texas voters. Millions of Texas households speak languages other than English. Most of them speak Spanish, and election administrators in Texas are already required to provide electoral materials in Spanish.

Very few Texas counties are required to provide assistance in languages other than Spanish. But almost 26 percent of Texas households that speak languages originating in Asia or the Pacific Islands are considered limited English-speaking households, according to census estimates.

The legal voting rights squabble stems from a 2014 incident in which the late Mallika Das, a Williamson County resident, was unable to get help from her son to cast her ballot.

A U.S. citizen born in India, Das had brought her son, Saurabh, to help her vote. She spoke Bengali, and her limited English proficiency had made it difficult in the past. But when Saurabh told poll workers he intended to interpret the ballot for his mother, an election official determined he didn’t meet the state’s voter registration requirements because he was registered to vote in neighboring Travis County.

The voting dilemma prompted the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund to sue the state on behalf of Das and the Greater Houston chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans to challenge the complexities behind Texas’ election requirements for language-minority voters.

One provision of state election code allows voters to select an “interpreter” to help them communicate with an election officer and “accompany the voter to the voting station for the purpose of translating the ballot to the voter.” A separate provision governs “assistors” and says voters can receive help reading or marking a ballot and states that assistance “occurs while the person is in the presence of the voter’s ballot.”

The interpreter, unlike an assistor, must be registered to vote in the same county.

In Das’ case, had her son simply told poll workers he was “assisting” his mother — and not that the assistance involved interpreting the ballot for her — he would have been able to go into the voting booth with her.

The interpreter voting law has been on hold since last year when U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman scolded the state for “arbitrarily” restricting voters with limited English proficiency. On Thursday, the 5th Circuit judges agreed with that judge’s ruling, but they sided with the state in determining that Pitman’s injunction on the law was too broad. Pitman must now take the case back up and reconsider the language he used in blocking the interpreter law.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the state in the court, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Texas Tribune | The Texas Tribune