Multilingual Ballot Access
Congress enacted the language minority provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) because, “through the use of various practices and procedures, citizens of language minorities have been effectively excluded from participation in the electoral process.” Today, the formula in section 203 of the VRA only requires that four counties in Colorado (Conejos, Costilla, Denver, and Saguache) provide election materials in both English and Spanish. One other county is required to provide information in Ute.
There are thousands of eligible voters (103,146 based on ACS 2017 5-year estimates) in Colorado who speak English “less than very well.” An estimated 60,962 of those eligible voters speak Spanish and, of those, 48,160 live in counties where ballots and other election materials are not available in Spanish. Further compounding the problem of ballot access for minority language speakers is the reading level at which Colorado’s ballots are written. For many minority-language speakers the ballot is simply incomprehensible even if they speak and read some English.
Section 203 of the VRA covers a jurisdiction when the number of United States citizens of voting age in that jurisdiction has a single language group that:
- is more than 10,000, or
- is more than five percent of all voting age citizens, or
- is on an American Indian reservation, exceeds five percent of all reservation residents; and
- the illiteracy rate of the group is higher than the national literacy rate.
Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress to protect citizens of language minorities who had traditionally been excluded from participation in the electoral process. Generally, the Act requires designated jurisdictions to provide all election material in both English and the minority language. Federal law mandates that the Department of Justice designate new 203 jurisdictions every five years.
After determining the jurisdictions that meet these requirements, the Department of Justice is empowered to enforce these requirements and may bring suit in federal court to enforce the requirements when necessary.
The census bureau, through both the national census and the American Community Survey, helps the Department of Justice to determine which jurisdictions have met the coverage.
Colorado does not currently expand minority language ballot access beyond federal requirements.