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Expanding Voting Rights for Linguistic Minorities | Series: In Our Language

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

It is essential for all Americans, including language minorities, to participate fully in the democratic process. A major piece of legislation has the voting rights of low English proficient voters in mind.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 (VRAA or HR4) aims to amend the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, thereby reasserting the power of the original act to prohibit discriminatory action in voting after the VRA was weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court decision. While the VRAA may appeal to a wider audience, the bill adds protection to voters of particular relevance to the JNCL community: language minorities.

The VRAA adds several new measures to the original VRA. For example, the Attorney General would be able to request federal election observers to anywhere in the country. There are more stringent provisions about public notices to voting infrastructure changes in covered states. The VRAA also has new protections for Native American communities, by expanding the definition of “Indian” and “Indian Lands” from the original VRA.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Terri Sewell (D, AL-7), calls the legislation necessary because of the “modern-day voter suppression the 2018 mid-term elections.” She holds that the VRAA will “advance the legacy of those brave foot soldiers of the civil rights movement by restoring key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.” Rep. Sewell’s district includes many historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement, include those in Selma, Alabama.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 would provide federal oversight of state election practices, ensuring they do not discriminate against language and racial minorities.

The VRAA would restore the VRA’s ability to provide federal oversight of state election practices, ensuring they do not discriminate against language and racial minorities. The VRAA reasserts the right of the federal government to pre-clear changes to voting infrastructure, including changes to language access in voting booths in states with a history of voting discrimination.

With 225 co-sponsors, the VRAA stands apart from many bills in Congress Of the 4,989 House bills proposed during the 116thcongress thus far, the VRAA has more co-sponsors than 99% of them.

The VRA has included provisions on language minorities since its amendment in 1975, including Section 203, which requires jurisdictions with a large number of non-English-proficient voters to be provided ballots in the relevant minority language. While detractors criticize this section as an unfunded mandate, it is necessary to allow linguistic minorities to vote.

Charged with enforcing the VRA, the Department of Justice must determine which states require pre-clearance of changes in election infrastructure, such as number or locations of voting booths. This pre-clearance is to ensure that states are not making voting more difficult for marginalized communities, such as low English proficient jurisdictions.

However, the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision struck down the VRA’s ability to enforce pre-clearance of election changes, which according to Rep. Sewell has allowed some states to enact “more restrictive voting laws that have led us in the wrong direction.”

Senator Patrick Leahy (D, VT), sponsor of the VRAA’s companion bill in the Senate (S561), agrees that “because of a disastrous 2013 Supreme Court decision, [voter suppression efforts] are almost impossible to stop.” He asserts that “The Voting Right Advancement Act ... would restore and bolster the Voting Rights Act, and undo the damage done by the Shelby County decision.”. This damage includes suppression of linguistic minority votes.

Defenders of the 5-4 Shelby County decision point out that the portion of the VRA that determined state eligibility for pre-clearance was unconstitutional because the coverage formula was based on outdated, forty-year-old data. The VRAA creates a new coverage formula that applies to all states and is based on records of voter discrimination of only the most recent 25 years, continually updating and discarding data that is over 25 years old.

According to official documentation published by Sen. Leahy, the VRAA will decrease the list of discriminatory practices to only those with “the greatest discriminatory impact.” This would ameliorate the burden of compliance from the states.

The VRAA has been reported out of the House Judiciary Committee, and could face a floor vote. Ask your House member to vote for the VRAA. Write your senator to support the VRAA’s sister bill in the senate as it enters committee. The voting rights of language minorities is non-negotiable.

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