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Voting Rights: Election Counties Required to Provide Spanish

Posted: Nov 05, 2012

Red may be its color, but Utah’s most populous county voted for Obama in the last presidential election–by 296 votes. Tomorrow, Salt Lake County will have another historic election as the first county in the state to provide Spanish-language translation.

“It’s been challenging,” said Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. “We’re kind of a pioneer in Utah for this.”

The translation requirement meant all written materials had to be translated, and bilingual poll workers stationed at strategic voting locations. Based on last names, Swensen estimates Latinos will account for at least 6.7 percent of the county’s registered voters.

But Swensen has been disappointed at the low voter turnout among Latinos. The translation requirement, which went into effect there in October 2011, was tested during the June primary. Swensen said she knows of only 10 cases in which language assistance was needed.

In addition, Spanish is available on the county’s electronic voting machines. For early voting in the 2012 presidential election, one station was located in Midvale, a city where 20 percent of the residents are Latino. It received the lowest voter turnout.

“I feel like they haven’t really utilized it with all our efforts,” she said. “We’ve had press conferences. We’ve put articles in the paper. I’ve been on television.”

Election clerks for Fairfax County, Va. and Lehigh County, Penn., both new to the requirement for the past year, shared a similar response. The demand hasn’t been there.

Under federal law known as the Voting Rights Act, counties and states are required to translate all election-related materials and provide bilingual assistance in Spanish and other languages.

But just having a large percentage of Latinos living in one county doesn’t automatically trigger the translation requirement. For example, residents in Nampa County in Idaho, which borders the state’s capital of Boise, is 24 percent Latino but they mostly speak English.

After registering tens of thousands of Latinos to vote in the state over many years, “If we have 100 that want or need the information in Spanish, that’s a high number,” according to Maria González Mabutt of Idaho Latino Vote.

To trigger required translation services, a single-language group with limited proficiency in English must constitute 5 percent of the population or 10,000 voters. Which locations qualify for this are determined by census data every 10 years.

As the most recent list was released in 2011, Spanish accounted for 188 jurisdictions–counties and states, as calculated by The Leadership Conference. The map below shows which counties are new, which were providing this translation ten years ago, as well as which are no longer active.

The battleground state of New Mexico came under the Spanish-language requirement in 2002. As of 2011, New Mexico was taken off the list, while some of its counties still fall under the requirement.

The Latino vote is coveted by political parties, and counties that have provided translation services in the past have been able to boost voter turnout for a subset of the population.

“It does help a set of people who are U.S. citizens, who are registered to vote, and only speak Spanish,” said Daniel Hopkins, political scientist and assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.

In the case of new counties in their first year of the language requirement, such as Salt Lake, it will take time to see turnout numbers of Latino voters increase. In addition to language, studies have shown that age and education are also variables to consider among Latino voters. And in general, immigrants tend to have lower voter participation rates than those who are born in the United States, said Hopkins.

Click on the map to view it.

“The core point is that we know first generation immigrants take a long time to be incorporated into American politics,” said Hopkins. “One small part of that process is learning about the mechanics of voting. For native-born Americans, voting is a habit that is socialized early on.”

The translation requirement is enforced through the federal government. Each Election Day, official observers descend upon a number of counties to monitor for cases of voter discrimination by race or language. On Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that this year it plans to monitor 51 counties. Twenty-two of them are required to provide Spanish translation.

Adelaide Chen is a journalist currently based in Los Angeles. 

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