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:
- The U.S. Department of Justice provides an annotated history of federal voting rights laws. It offers an explainer on language minority voting rights.
- The full text of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
- The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a government agency established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, is a clearinghouse of information on election administration.
- English-language advocacy groups such as ProEnglish and English First aim to make English the official language of the U.S. and eliminate multilingual policies.
- Groups such the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Asian Americans Advancing Justice have pushed to ensure U.S. election materials are available in various languages.
- A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center suggests that 89 percent of U.S.-born Latinos spoke English proficiently in 2013 and that 21 percent of all Hispanics who did not speak English in 2013 were 65 years old or older.
- A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Political Science, “Translating into Votes: The Electoral Impacts of Spanish-Language Ballots,” suggests that Spanish-language assistance results in higher voter turnout among citizens who speak little English.
- A 2010 Harvard Law Review article, titled “Race, Region, and Vote Choice in the 2008 Election: Implications for the Future of the Voting Rights Act,” examines data from the 2008 primary and general elections to reveal differences in voting behavior among black and white voters and also among jurisdictions.
- In a 2009 study published in Legislative Studies Quarterly, “Has the Voting Rights Act Outlived Its Usefulness? In a Word, ‘No’,” the authors provide evidence demonstrating the need for and effectiveness of the VRA on expanding political inclusion.
- Michael Jones-Correa of Cornell University looks at whether the VRA affects the voting rates of language minorities in a 2005 study published in Social Science Quarterly, “Language Provisions Under the Voting Rights Act: How Effective Are They.”
Keywords: bilingual, ballot, precinct, immigrants, Yo Vote, Vote Aqui