Kokua Line

June Watanabe

Law requires election
ballot translations

Question: In order to vote you have to be a U.S. citizen. I've been under the impression that if you are from another country, you have to pass a test -- you have to speak and write a minimum amount of English. When did all this change? The election ballots are now issued in foreign languages.

Answer: Election ballots have long been published in various languages, depending on where in the United States you are registered to vote.

In Hawaii, ballots are also printed in Chinese, Ilocano and Japanese, as specified under the U.S. Voting Rights Act, according to a spokesman for the State Elections Office.

The foreign languages covered under the act are, generally, Spanish, Asian, Native American and Alaskan Native, which have been determined to be "language minorities" that have "suffered a history of exclusion from the political process."

You're correct that, among the general requirements to become a naturalized citizen, you have to show an ability to read, write and speak English, as well as have a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government.

That has not changed, although the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service is in the process of revising its testing procedures to make them "uniform, fair, efficient, secure and applicant-centered."

However, under the Voting Rights Act, the federal government recognizes that the United States is a diverse country in which "many Americans rely heavily on languages other than English" and they may require information in "minority languages" to be informed voters.

Congress added Section 203 -- said to be the keystone to protecting the voting rights of "minority language Americans" --- to the Voting Rights Act of 1975 after determining that "through the use of various practices and procedures, citizens of language minorities have been effectively excluded from participation in the electoral process ... "

In 1992, changes in the method of determining which jurisdictions must provide minority language materials and information became part of the law.

Section 203 essentially says that whenever any state or political subdivision (covered by the section) provides registration or voting notices and information related to the electoral process, including ballots, "it shall provide them in the language of the applicable minority group as well as in the English language."

That law covers areas where there are more than 10,000, or more than 5 percent, of the total voting-age citizens in a single political subdivision, who are members of a minority language group, have depressed literacy rates, and do not speak English very well.

A group called English First, a nonprofit lobbying organization based in Springfield, Va., seeks to get rid of bilingual ballots and bilingual education.

On its Web page -- -- it says members "believe that the English language unites America" and they "are tired of seeing the government use their tax money to divide Americans on the basis of language or ancestry."


See the Columnists section for some past articles.

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