Expert Commentary

Do more U.S. Latinos win political offices if election materials are printed in English and Spanish?

2016 study in the American Journal of Political Science that looks at whether Latino political representation improves in the U.S. when election materials are printed in English and Spanish.

(Erik Hersman/Used with permission)

The Issue: As the number of Latinos living in the United States has grown, Latino voters have become more important in national and local politics. More Latinos have been elected to office, especially in Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona. Nationally, almost 6,100 Latinos held elected positions in 2014 – a 25 percent increase in a decade, according to a report from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

The power of Latino voters is diluted, however, by their low turnout rate at the polls. A 2016 analysis by the Pew Research Center shows that 27 percent of eligible Latino voters participated in the 2014 midterm election (compared to about 41 percent of black, non-Hispanic voters and almost 46 percent of white, non-Hispanic voters).

Voter advocacy organizations are working to improve Latino voter participation. Part of that effort includes translating election materials into Spanish and pressing election officials to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), which requires ballots and information related to the electoral process to be printed in other languages in addition to English when the number of people who speak a minority language in the community reaches a certain threshold. Section 203 of the VRA outlines this requirement.

For context, reporters should keep in mind that, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court found key parts of the VRA to be unconstitutional. Those sections required certain states and counties with histories of racial discrimination to get federal clearance before changing local voting laws. The 2016 presidential election will be the first presidential election since the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision.

An academic study worth reading: “Voting Rights for Whom? Examining the Effects of the Voting Rights Act on Latino Political Incorporation,” published in the American Journal of Political Science, July 2016.

Study summary: Melissa J. Marschall of Rice University and Amanda Rutherford of Texas A&M University examined an issue that they assert has been largely ignored by social scientists — how the language-assistance provisions of the VRA affect Latino representation in politics. For the study, Marschall and Rutherford focused on a sample of 1,661 school districts with elected school boards and a student enrollment of 5,000 or more in 1999. Using data from the National Education Panel Survey and other sources, they looked at how and when local governments used Spanish-language election materials. They looked at the number of Latinos elected to local school boards between 1975 and 2011. The authors also analyzed other factors that they thought might affect political participation, including the percentage of voting-age Hispanics living in those areas, the percentage of Hispanics in these areas with bachelor’s degrees and the number of seats on the school boards.

Key takeaways from the study:

  • Sections 4(f) and 203 of the Voting Rights Act address discrimination against language minorities. The provisions originally addressed widespread discrimination against Spanish-speakers in Texas, but eventually expanded coverage to other minority groups such as American Indians and Asian Americans.
  • The language-assistance provisions “have had a meaningful effect on Latino school board representation. In particular, consistent coverage under Section 203 sharply increases the likelihood that Latinos overcome the representational hurdle and gain a seat on the local school board.”
  • The provisions do not appear to influence office holding among Latinos beyond their first elected office.
  • There is evidence that election monitoring by the federal government “significantly increases the extent of Latino representation.” But oversight of local election authorities by federal officials is limited by time and resources, giving local authorities a nearly autonomous role in implementing the language-assistance provisions.
  • Voters who rely on the language-assistance provisions are unlikely to report any implementation failures. Often, individuals are unaware that they are entitled to language-assistance in the political process.
  • Higher education levels and home ownership are associated with higher levels of Latino political representation. Conversely, communities with high levels of poverty that are home to large numbers of Latinos who do not speak English make less progress in increasing Latino representation.

Helpful resources for reporters writing about this issue:

Related research:


Keywords: bilingual, ballot, precinct, immigrants, Yo Vote, Vote Aqui

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