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The Language Barrier in the Voting Booth

We need to work harder to make it as easy to vote for Americans who struggle with English as it is for everyone else.

During the Democratic presidential caucus in Nevada last month, the issue of language assistance in elections came up front and center -- and it was not pretty. Fingers pointed in all directions about what actually happened and who was to blame, but what is clear is that there were caucus participants who needed assistance in Spanish to fully understand the process and their options and that they did not receive this essential help. This incident highlights how important language assistance in the political process is and why more must be done to ensure that language needs are being accommodated.

Today in the United States, one in five people speak a language other than English at home, and of that population who are 15 or older 42 percent report having some difficulty with the English language. Despite the increases in the eligible voting populations of Latinos and Asian-Americans in recent decades, according to the Pew Research Center there continues to be a 15-20 percent gap in voting participation rates between those voters and whites. While a variety of factors can contribute to a voter's inability to participate in the election process, in many communities language barriers are a huge obstacle.

The language-minority voting community often faces the same socio-economic disparities and logistical barriers that negatively impact other marginalized voters. They can face hurdles, and at times discrimination, at the polls from poll workers or challengers who are not able to communicate clearly. In the worst cases, there may be false assumptions that language difficulties mean a voter is ineligible to cast a ballot. And the political process can be overly complicated for those who have emigrated from countries with no democratic system, while our voter materials are often written in complex English.

As the 2016 election cycle unfolds, election administrators, civic organizations, and advocates can take steps to help mitigate problems faced by language-minority voters, helping to ensure equal access to the ballot.

First, at a minimum, election officials should make sure they comply with federal protections for language minority voters under the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The federal law requires jurisdictions that meet a certain threshold of eligible language-minority voters to provide language assistance via translated written materials, bilingual poll workers, and publicizing available language assistance. Another provision of the VRA allows voters the opportunity to bring someone of their choosing to assist them in the voting process. Administrators should ensure that their poll workers are aware of this right and are trained in how to assist voters with language needs.

Additionally -- and regardless of any federal or state requirement -- elections administrators should attempt to recruit bilingual poll workers, identify which polling locations could have a language need, reach out to local and ethnic-community media to help with recruitment, and partner with local and ethnic organizations to review and share nonpartisan election information. A minimal investment in recruitment and targeting can yield big returns for the same cost as hiring monolingual poll workers exclusively. Civic organizations and advocates can help in this effort by working to educate language-minority voters about what rights they have to assistance at the polls and by sharing resources, such as in-language hotlines to call with questions.

While the Nevada caucus is the most recent incident of a language-assistance failure, it is not the only incident and it certainly will not be the last. Concerns about language barriers continue to be raised by groups across the country, including Latino voters in Massachusetts, Asian voters in Florida and Native American voters in Arizona.

It remains to be seen how well language-minority voters will be accommodated during the rest of this year's election cycle, but the Nevada incident is a reminder that this is an increasingly important issue in elections. We should address language issues head-on to prevent miscommunication and disenfranchisement, and we should work together to make voting for this growing segment the American population as comfortable and easy as it is for everyone else.

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