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Why Spanish-language voting ballots are critical for democracy, advocates say


(NEW YORK) — As the midterm elections approach later this year, some states and jurisdictions have required voting ballots to be made available in other languages besides English.

The Latino population continues to grow in the United States and some counties have mandated that ballots in Spanish are available at polling sites.

However, Spanish and non-English ballots are not required across the nation, though some advocates say that multilingual ballots are critical for democracy.

“We need to have bilingual ballots, bilingual material across the country, it should be a national requirement and a national norm,” said Domingo Garcia, the national president for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

In the 2020 U.S. Census data, the Latino population accounted for over 60 million people. Yet, according to a study conducted by the City University of New York, only 10.6% of Latinos voted in the 2020 elections.

Some advocates believe that one of the reasons behind this lagging voting number is a language barrier.

“When we look at the language barrier, it is voter suppression, right? It is discriminatory against eligible citizens who … have the right to access ballots,” said League of United Latin American Citizens Chief Executive Director Sindy Benavides.

Benavides said the need for ballot materials in Spanish include a need for other voting resources, such as interpreters, bilingual ballot directors and even flyers that can influence voter turnout.

“The requirements are very straightforward. … All election information that is available in English must also be available in the minority language so that all citizens have the opportunity to register and to participate in elections and be able to cast a free and effective ballot,” said Benavides. “We know that language barrier is directly tied to low voter turnout.”

The areas of impact

Across the nation, at least 331 U.S. jurisdictions are required by law to offer language assistance to specific groups. But that number only makes for 4.1% of the 2,920 counties and 5,120 minor civil divisions that constitute the political subdivisions in U.S. Section 203 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“In our own backyard, across the entire United States — Ohio, Utah, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, you name it — we are touching every single state and one fact that is true, is that the Latino community will continue to grow for decades to come,” said Benavides.

According to U.S. Section 203, if over 5% of a township or county’s voting-age citizens are limited in English proficiency they need to be covered by language provisions within the Voting Rights Act, according to the U.S. Census.

Just last month, in the Washington, D.C., area, Prince George’s County in Maryland and Prince William County in Virginia mandated ballots in Spanish to accommodate their significant Latino populations.

But in Georgia, Latino activists have pushed for Spanish-language ballots in Hall County, where 28% of all residents are Hispanic, according to Census data.

“What we’ve heard specifically from the community has been that not having information in Spanish limits their ability to be able to freely and openly participate,” said Jerry Gonzalez, founder and CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, or GALEO.

“Our community really takes voting very seriously, and they want to be informed and educated about what’s on the ballot,” said Gonzalez. “Sometimes not knowing what’s on the ballot, because they can’t read it in Spanish, makes them hesitant to actually cast a ballot and it prevents people from voting.”

In November 2020, according to a report from GALEO, there were 385,185 Latino voters, representing 4.1% of the total electorate in Georgia. When compared to the 2016 analysis, the Latino electorate in the state grew by 140,995 Latino registered voters, representing a growth rate of 57.7%.

“Our effort is to make sure that we educate our community in both English and Spanish about the importance of their vote and also the importance of these elections and how consequential they are for us moving our community forward,” said Gonzalez.

Hall County, Georgia, Elections Director Lori Wurtz told the Gainesville Times in December that Spanish ballots in the county would not be reevaluated for another five years, however, after that evaluation, she foresees the county qualifying for bilingual ballots. According to the U.S Census, jurisdictions are evaluated every five years using data from the American Community Survey.

“When we are tapped to do this, we’re ready,” Wurtz told the outlet.

Need for change

This week, the Senate will meet to discuss voting rights. However, Gonzalez emphasizes the need to also have “language barrier” as part of the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

This would be a key addition for Puerto Ricans, who have the right to vote in the United States as American citizens. If Puerto Ricans move to one of the 50 states, they are allowed to vote in federal elections, but they might not feel confident to do so with Spanish being the main language spoken on the island.

“It is important for Puerto Ricans to vote in the language that they understand, because there are now more Puerto Ricans living on the mainland,” said Kira Romero-Craft from Latino Justice Puerto Rico Legal Defense Educational Fund.

“If they want to influence Congress to impact the island then Puerto Ricans need to vote,” she told ABC News. “Puerto Rico, to me, is like the perfect example of why we need to care and why we need to engage and vote as if our life depended on it — because it does.”

Although a language barrier continues to be an ongoing issue in some states, advocates are calling on Latinos to go out and take to the polls regardless of current circumstances that may affect them.

“Your vote counts; your voice is your vote. And right now, more than ever, if you want immigration reform, then you got to vote to make sure that you have a congressperson or senator that will represent your points of view,” said Garcia.

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