FALLS CHURCH, Va. — In this community center turned polling place, Juan Sanchis stands near an electronic ballot reader with a smile on his face, waiting.
Many of the voters filing into the Willston Community Center, in a diverse pocket of Fairfax County, don’t speak English very well. When it seems like the voters don’t understand, Sanchis switches over to Korean or Spanish, or gets a worker who speaks Vietnamese. Around him on the tables and walls, pamphlets and signs are translated into all three of those languages.
“If they need help understanding, that’s what I try to do,” Sanchis said earlier this month, as Virginia primary voters went to the polls to choose candidates for a variety of state and local offices.
As the country grows more diverse, more local governments like Fairfax County, a Washington, D.C., suburb, are falling under a federal election law that requires them to provide language assistance — including translators and translated election materials — to certain minority groups that are heavily represented in their communities. Dozens of communities were added to the list for the first time in December, sending local officials in those communities scrambling.
The number of governments subject to the law has increased in recent years, with language requirements added in 52 places, including some where another language was already required, in December. A total of 263 jurisdictions, representing almost a third of the voting-age population, are now covered. The rules pertain to places with at least 5 percent of the voting-age population or 10,000 residents who speak the same language and don’t speak English very well, as determined by the U.S. Census Bureau. Only certain languages are covered. Three states —California, Florida and Texas — must also meet the rules when providing election materials statewide.
For the local governments, the new costs of providing this assistance come at a time when many face tight budgets and the need to replace outdated ballot machines. Some, including Fairfax County, which was required to translate into Vietnamese for the first time this year, are doing the basics to meet the requirements and comply. Others, such as Montgomery County, Maryland, and King County, Washington, are taking it a step further, reaching out to minority communities before Election Day, and providing voter guides in multiple languages.
Advocates such as Terry Ao Minnis, a senior fellow at the Democracy Fund Voice, which promotes civic engagement, say that better translation services will help eliminate language barriers that stifle voter turnout for Asians and Hispanics, who are far less likely to vote than whites and blacks.
But some state and local officials see this as another unfunded federal mandate, and don’t think the government should be paying for translation services to begin with. A 2007 survey of local officials who had to meet the requirements found that some of the officials thought the federal government should be paying for the assistance, some thought elections should be conducted only in English, and some didn’t think the rules should remain in effect.
Voters themselves — not the government — should be paying for assistance if they need it, said Phil Kent of ProEnglish, a group that wants to scrap the election law, which was added to the Voting Rights Act in 1975. For years, ProEnglish has fought to make English the official language of the U.S., arguing that providing assistance to immigrants in their native language prevents them from adapting to American culture. “It undermines a very important incentive for immigrants to learn English and become full participants in our society,” he said.
Federal election law allows people who can’t read or write well to bring someone to the polls to help them vote. But, Kent said, if you’re a citizen, “you’re supposed to know English.”
‘There is No Checklist’
The federal law is meant to target “those language minorities that have suffered a history of exclusion from the political process,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and only applies to Spanish and American Indian, Alaskan Native and Asian languages.
The number of communities covered by the law has been growing as immigrants become more dispersed across the country. But in some communities, languages are being taken off the list: languages were dropped in 40 jurisdictions in December. The Pew Research Center says this may be because recent immigrants are better educated, or because Hispanics’ English proficiency is improving. (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds both the center and Stateline.)
Most of the people getting help are Spanish speakers. As of December, 214 communities were required to translate election materials into Spanish, 18 into Chinese, 11 into Navajo, 10 into Choctaw, nine into Yup’ik, and nine into Vietnamese. Only 10 communities, including Fairfax County, must translate into more than two languages, and half of them are in Southern California or near San Francisco, according to a Stateline analysis of census data.
The law is fairly vague as to what language assistance governments must provide. Any written material provided in English must be translated, including ballots, instructional forms, polling place notices, and voter registration information. Bilingual poll workers are “essential” in “at least some precincts” on Election Day, and there should be trained personnel in the courthouse or government offices who can answer questions in the minority language.
The lack of specificity makes the rules difficult for local governments to interpret. “There is no checklist,” said Cameron Sasnett, Fairfax County’s general registrar and director of elections.
To help, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission has for the last two years worked with Democracy Fund Voice to host a national conference during which local election officials discuss how to comply with the rules. Its most recent conference took place in Fairfax County this month.
Matt Masterson, the chairman of the commission, said communities that are new to the rules may benefit from reaching out to other local governments that have already had to comply, and from building relationships with minority communities, which can lead to translation help and support.
Masterson also encourages communities to anticipate changes to their populations so they know what languages may be required in the future. That’s what Fairfax County did this year. The county is only required to translate into Spanish and Vietnamese, but the county also chose to begin translating into Korean, because it knows it has a growing Korean population, Sasnett said. About 35,000 of the million or so county residents speak Korean at home, and about 55 percent of them don’t speak English very well, according to census data.
King County, Washington, recently made a similar move. It translates election materials into Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese, even though Korean and Spanish are not required.
The county, which encompasses Seattle, also goes beyond what federal law requires in other ways. Working with a nonprofit, it created a Voter Education Fund in 2015. Last year, the fund gave $224,000 to community organizations that reached out to minority voters through voter registration drives and other community events, said Julie Wise, the county’s elections director. The nonprofit and the county split the cost of the initiative. This year the fund will give out up to $400,000.
Wise said the funding has paid off. The county votes by mail only, and, since the initiative started, Wise said the number of translated ballots requested by voters increased by nearly two-thirds, from 3,288 in 2015 to 5,398 in 2016.
The county has met resistance from some residents, who say it is attempting to increase voter turnout among specific voters for political reasons, because some minority groups, such as Hispanics, are more likely to cast votes for Democrats. But Wise said the opposition to the changes has been limited, and the county has made a point of providing voting information to Republican-leaning constituencies, such as Ukrainian immigrants.
But, in some cases, partisan politics do come into play, said Tucker, who co-authored a report on the 2007 survey of local officials. Local election officials are usually enthusiastic about increasing voter access, he said, but state or local elected officials may try to stop the efforts as a way to isolate communities who may not vote for their candidates.
“If there is a belief that a particular group of voters aren’t going to vote for your candidates, you aren’t going to go out of your way to remove barriers to access in voting,” Tucker said.
Cost of Compliance
Critics say complying with the law can be costly, but data show the costs are usually small when compared to overall spending on elections. It costs King County about $75,000 to add a new language, and about $125,000 a year to maintain the services — a small part of its two-year election budget, which averages $36 million.
Governments that fall under the federal rules for language assistance reported spending only a fraction of their total election budget on language services, according to the 2007 survey.
The U.S. Department of Justice has brought dozens of lawsuits against state and local governments in the past four decades for failing to comply with the law. Some nonprofits that advocate for voting rights or the rights of minorities have also filed lawsuits.
Alaska was sued twice, in 2007 and 2013, by the Native American Rights Fund for failing to translate election materials into Alaskan Native languages covered under the federal law. The state paid $1.8 million as part of the settlement for the second lawsuit alone, according to Indra Arriaga, the state’s language assistance compliance manager.
Arriaga said the state hired her to help the state comply with the law — a big undertaking in a state where residents speak dozens of languages, including many Native and Alaskan dialects that are covered by the law. The state now provides translations in a dozen languages, and is working on adding at least two more. It cost the state about $350,000 to add seven languages last year, Arriaga said.
Many of the people who speak these languages live in remote areas and don’t have access to internet or reliable phone service, Arriaga said. She sends tribes election materials by mail, and the tribes send handwritten translations back. The translation can take months.
“Philosophically, we want to translate to as many people as need translations,” she said, “but logistically, it becomes a nightmare.”
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department filed lawsuits against seven communities it said were not complying with the law. Election officials and attorneys say it’s unclear if the Trump administration will be as aggressive. Its focus seems to be more on increasing voter requirements to deter fraud, not on increasing voter access, Tucker said.