Special Protections for Language Minority Voters since 1975
The protections available to language minority voters before 1975 proved inadequate. The VRA’s nationwide ban on literacy tests was temporary and did not fully remedy the effects of discriminatory schooling on non-English-speaking voters. Requirements for bilingual election materials and assistance under Section 4(e) of the Act were only available to citizens schooled in Puerto Rico. Court decisions requiring that voters be allowed to receive assistance at the polls did little to alleviate the situation. Instead, they shifted the burden to the victims of unequal educational opportunities to obtain the help they needed to cast an informed ballot. Moreover, election officials often denied the right to receive assistance because it conflicted with local procedures, they claimed it promoted vote fraud, or it simply was unavailable under state law. Of 17 states without voter assistance laws, 11 had substantial language minority populations and were among the first to be covered by the bilingual election provisions in 1975.1
State and local governments did not fill the gap in federal remedies. The Senate Judiciary Committee observed:
Despite the evidence of high illiteracy rates for language minority citizens, states and local areas continue to adhere to uniform language assistance…. [T]he practice of conducting registration and voting only in English does impede the political participation of voters whose usual language is not English. The failure of states and local jurisdictions to provide adequate bilingual registration and election materials and assistance undermines the voting rights of non-English-speaking citizens and effectively excludes otherwise qualified voters from participating in elections (S. Rep. No. 94-295, 1975: 30).