Why Voting Rights Act Section 203 doesn't cover certain languages The Voting Rights Act requires some states and local areas to offer election materials in more than just English. But the support for voters is limited to Spanish, Asian and Native American languages.

A federal law requires translated voting ballots, but not in Arabic or Haitian Creole

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1083848846/1108843871" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It can be especially hard to vote in the U.S. if English is not your first language. In some parts of the country, the federal government requires translations of election ballots, forms and signs. But those federal requirements don't cover all languages. For example, Arabic and Haitian Creole are not included. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang explains.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: If you went out and voted this month in Virginia's Prince William County...

MARVIN HERNANDEZ RIVAS: Let me see (speaking Spanish).

WANG: ...You may have been greeted with official election signs and flyers in Spanish that Marvin Hernandez says he's never seen before at polling sites here. Hernandez is an election manager for the immigrant advocacy group CASA In Action.

What does this say?

HERNANDEZ RIVAS: (Speaking Spanish). No campaigning or distribution of literature beyond this point.

WANG: Getting to this point in this Northern Virginia county is mainly the result of Congress expanding the Voting Rights Act back in 1975. Lawmakers added a mandate that requires states and local areas that hit certain demographic measures to provide election materials in more than just English. There are now more than 300 places around the country that have to offer translated voting information. And to Hernandez, it's not just about more pieces of paper and plastic.

HERNANDEZ RIVAS: Yeah, it's more than that, right? It's beyond that. Information is power, right? Yeah.

WANG: According to the law, though, these translation requirements only protect the voting rights of, quote, "persons who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives or of Spanish heritage."

JIM TUCKER: You know, one of the arguments actually that was made is that every language should be eligible for coverage.

WANG: Jim Tucker is a voting rights attorney who's written "The Battle Over Bilingual Ballots," a book about the history of how Congress decided which language minority groups would be eligible for voting assistance. Ultimately, lawmakers decided that the protections would be limited to groups who had faced a historical record of voting and educational discrimination. And speakers of some increasingly common languages in the U.S. have been left out.

TUCKER: It may be that Congress would reach a different conclusion today with respect to Haitian Creole and Arabic.

WANG: In the U.S. Senate, though, any talks about expanding voting rights have hit a wall. In the meantime, some local governments have been filling in the gaps, including in Florida's Miami-Dade County, where for decades certain precincts have had to provide ballots in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole.

GEPSIE METELLUS: It's a good thing that in Miami-Dade County that's a fact. But that's not the case in many other jurisdictions.

WANG: Gepsie Metellus is the executive director of Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in north Miami. And she says expanding language assistance requirements at the federal level would help more U.S. citizens feel at ease with voting.

METELLUS: It's an invitation to participate. It's an embrace, a recognition that that population is part of the American fabric.

WANG: In Dearborn, Mich., home to one of the country's largest Arab American populations, voters like Shaima Mohammed have been waiting for official recognition of their needs as Arabic-speaking U.S. citizens. Back in 2020, Mohammed says she needed help figuring out how to cast a ballot.

SHAIMA MOHAMMED: And sometimes my husband, he doesn't know how to explain in Arabic. I don't understand him. He's not good in Arabic. I have to ask, like, my neighbor or my cousin.

WANG: Starting this year, though, she may not have to ask for as much help, now that Dearborn City Council has approved a resolution requiring ballots in both English and Arabic.

MOHAMMED: You have to vote. All the country is voting. Maybe your voice is going to help choose that right person.

WANG: A voice that in Dearborn can soon be heard through a ballot in Mohammed's native language.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.