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More communities required to provide language help to Latino and other voters

Since 2016, the number of communities with eligible Hispanic, Asian American and other voters who are not proficient in English has increased.
Floridians Head To The Polls On Election Day
A poll worker speaks with a voter at the entrance to a polling station on Election Day in Miami Beach, Fla., on Nov. 2.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

The number of communities required by law to help non-English-proficient people vote rose to 331 this year, up from 263 in 2016, the Census Bureau announced Wednesday.

The increase largely reflected the higher number of Hispanics in communities across the country who are eligible to vote but are not proficient in English.

The Census Bureau issued its national list of states, counties and communities where populations of eligible voters not proficient in English are large enough to trigger protection under the federal Voting Rights Act that requires language help for such voters.

“Inability to speak or read English cannot be a barrier to the most cherished right of a U.S. citizen, the right to vote,” said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, a bipartisan group that works to ensure Latino participation in government and public office.

A total of 24,244,810 voting-age citizens live in the communities, a 22.3 percent increase from 2016. Most are Latino, about 20.4 million; 3.6 million are Asian American and 236,942 are American Indian and Alaska Native, the Census Bureau said.

For a community or a county to be subject to the requirement, more than 5 percent or more than 10,000 of its voting-age citizens must be limited in English proficiency, and the rate must be higher than the national rate.

The communities covered by the provisions are just 4.1 percent of the 2,920 counties and 5,120 cities, towns and communities that were considered, the Census Bureau said.

Language assistance can mean providing bilingual ballots or multiple-language ballots, as well as publishing voter registration forms, instructions or other forms in the languages of the prominent groups in the community or the county.

In essence, the law says all materials the jurisdictions provide in English must be provided in the language of the specified non-English-proficient group, as well.

This year's number includes 68 more communities. The entire states of California, Texas and Florida remain on the list, unchanged from 2016.

Massachusetts had the most communities added to the list, increasing from 12 to 19.

Six are communities with more Hispanic voters who are not proficient in English — Clinton, Everett, Fitchburg, Leominster, Methuen and Salem. One, the town of Randolph, has more voters of Vietnamese descent who need the language help to vote.

In Arizona, communities that must provide language help to American Indian/Alaska Native populations jumped from six to 11, and Minnesota this year added its first Asian community where it must provide language help.

Vargas said the numbers can reflect the migration of populations, naturalizations and the number of people who reach voting age. People must be citizens to vote.

The legacy of Jim Crow

The Census Bureau identifies communities that must provide language assistance for people who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaska Natives or "of Spanish heritage," as stated in the Voting Rights Act.

Requirements to be able to read and write English originally were used to keep Black people from voting. Slaves were prohibited by law from learning to read and write or vote, so the literacy tests kept many from voting after emancipation.

Jim Crow laws and unequal education continued to prevent Blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native people from voting.

Literacy tests and language barriers are unconstitutional. The Voting Rights Act includes a provision protecting the right of "language minorities" to vote.

Vargas cited the example of Puerto Ricans, who are not required to read or write English if they live in Puerto Rico, where many people speak both languages.

A Puerto Rican who moves to the U.S. mainland and is not proficient in English “is a fully franchised U.S. citizen and must have free and complete access to the ballot” regardless of language proficiency.

Communities were dropped from the list in some states. In Alaska, 13 communities must provide language assistance, down from 15 in 2016.

The jurisdictions are determined based on five years of data from the American Community Survey of U.S. households, which collects population characteristics of the U.S. population, including citizenship data and English fluency.

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