Multilingual Ballots


Bilingual ballots “impose an unacceptable cost by degrading the very concept of the citizen

to that of someone lost in a country whose public discourse is incomprehensible to him.”

John Silber, President Emeritus of Boston University, 1996 testimony to Congress.

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 was originally enacted to prohibit state and local governments from denying or abridging the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” a right guaranteed by the 15th Amendment. It applied to political jurisdictions with a history of denying such rights to black Americans and was specifically aimed at removing barriers to voter registration. It was intended to be a temporary remedy.

But in 1975, Congress greatly expanded the Voting Rights Act’s original intent by inserting special protections for “language minorities.” The language minorities singled out for protection under Section 203 of the Act were: American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives, and citizens of Spanish Heritage. For the first time in our history, states and counties with substantial populations of these protected language minorities were required to provide ballot and election materials in languages other than English.

Although the bilingual ballot provisions like other parts of the VRA were originally intended to be temporary remedies, they renewed in 1982, 1992, and again in 2006 for another 25 years. 



1) There is No Justification for Multilingual Ballots and Election Materials

The United States is an English-speaking country in which almost all citizens speak, read, and understand the English language. Since 1907, the United States has required immigrants to learn English in order to naturalize and acquire the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote in federal elections. This is entirely appropriate for a nation whose Constitution and founding documents are written entirely in the English language. Therefore, forcing state and local governments to print foreign-language ballots for citizens who are already required to read and understand English is both redundant and wasteful.

The only logical rationale for the mandatory provision of ballots and voting materials in other languages is to facilitate and encourage voting by non-citizens – a violation of federal law. Thus, bilingual ballots debase the meaning of citizenship, encourage voter fraud, and undermine the integrity of the naturalization process by eliminating an incentive for immigrants to learn English.

2) Multilingual Ballot Requirements are Arbitrary and Wasteful

Jurisdictions such as counties are required to provide multilingual election materials under Sections 203(c) and 4(f)(4) of the Voting Rights Act if:
 1) More than 5 percent of the jurisdiction’s total voting age citizens are members of one of the protected “language minority” groups,  2) the illiteracy rate of such language-minority-group citizens is higher than the national illiteracy rate, or 3) more than 10,000 of the jurisdiction’s voting age citizens are members of a protected “language minority” group.  The language assistance requirements are triggered if any of these conditions is met.

The formula means that every municipality within a covered jurisdiction must provide multilingual election materials – even if everyone there speaks English.

3) Multilingual Ballots are an Unfunded Mandate on Local Governments

Congress has never appropriated funding to help local governments comply with the ’75 multilingual ballot assistance amendment to the Voting Rights Act. In fact, the bilingual assistance provisions of the Act constitute an “unfunded mandate,” according to the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA) of 1995.

A growing number of localities are being forced to spend significant portions of their election budgets to comply with Sec. 203.  In August of 2010, Cuyahoga County in Ohio was threatened with litigation by the U.S. Justice Department if they didn’t provide multilingual ballots for the next election. Cuyahoga County backed down.  Translating written materials, increased training and having bilingual poll workers will cost the county close to $200,000 a year, after $289,000 in transition costs next year, according to Elections Director Jane Platten.


This year in Hawaii, a lawsuit was filed claiming that the state’s preparations for November’s mail-in election violate laws protecting voters who have limited proficiency in English. The suit was filed on behalf of two registered voters, De Guang Chen and Yong Tang Xie, “who speak Chinese and have limited proficiencies with the English language.” The suit alleged that the mail-in ballots to be sent to registered voters by the state Office of Elections will only be in English and voters will separately receive “abbreviated” multi-lingual instructional materials. According to the Honolulu Advertiser, the state Attorney General’s Office issued a statement that “the Office of Elections believes it is in compliance with federal law with respect to limited English proficiency voters, and that the lawsuit lacks merit.”

Shannon County, SD and the U.S. Justice Department have reached an agreement that requires the county to provide election materials and information in Lakota for voters who speak that language, and to have trained bilingual election officials at polling sites. Shannon County includes much of the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation. Four of the five county commissioners are members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

And also this year, Volusia County, FL and the Latino Justice Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund reached an agreement to provide sample ballots in Spanish this year and election officials will provide actual ballots in Spanish starting in 2012 as part of the settlement in which “no party is conceding liability.” All that’s left is to figure out who is responsible for the legal fees.

All the agreements reached by these localities mean more taxpayer dollars paying for the translation costs. It would be far more efficient to let the tiny number of U.S. citizens who require language assistance bring someone into the ballot booth to assist them.

4) Multilingual Ballots increase the likelihood of Errors and Vote Fraud

It is self-evident that multilingual ballots and elections undermine the integrity of the elections process by increasing the likelihood of election errors and fraud. In July 2010, Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA) signed legislation requiring the City of Boston to prepare ballots in Chinese and Vietnamese for all federal, state and local elections. The measure, a Boston home-rule petition, also calls for Chinese ballots to be transliterated by the Boston Board of Election Commissioners to include Chinese characters that represent the phonetic equivalent of the syllables of an English name.  Opponents of the legislation argued that adding Chinese characters could cause confusion and the likelihood of voter errors to rise. For example, Mitt Romney could be read as “Sticky Rice” or “Uncooked Rice.” Fred Thompson might be read as “Virtue Soup.” And Barack Obama could be read as “Oh Bus Horse.”

Language assistance settlements imposed on covered localities by the Justice Department routinely require the hiring of bilingual election workers and thereby increase the risk of election fraud, voter intimidation, and voter manipulation. Since the Attorney General’s Ballot Access and voting Integrity Initiative was launched in 2002, over 140 individuals have been charged with election fraud offenses.  Over 100 people have been convicted of voter fraud in that time frame.  Over 360 election fraud investigations have been started since the initiative began in 2002.

5) Multilingual Ballots are a Growing Burden

The number of states and counties required to provide multilingual election materials under Sec. 203(c) and 4(f)(4) is growing. Today, more than 300 counties and municipalities across the nation are required to provide language assistance, mostly Spanish, at polling places.  But dozens of other languages also are covered by the rules, and some jurisdictions have multilingual requirements.  For instance, Apache County in Arizona must provide ballots and language assistance in Spanish, as well as oral help for Apache, Navajo and Pueblo voters.  In Los Angeles County in California, help is required to be provided in Spanish, Filipino, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.