WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has reached a settlement with a New Jersey county over language barriers for Spanish-speaking voters, emphasizing a growing challenge for certain minority communities nationwide.
The agreement with Union County comes after federal prosecutors filed a lawsuit alleging it failed to make registration and voting notices, forms, instructions and ballots available in Spanish, violating sections of the federal Voting Rights Act.
“We know firsthand how language barriers hurt our community,” said Hector Sanchez Barba, chief executive of Mi Familia Vota, a national group seeking to boost Latino political influence. “Eliminating language barriers is not only legally sound but also the right thing to do to strengthen our democracy.”
The county, which has nearly 28,000 Spanish-speaking citizens of voting age, will be required to print all election materials in English and Spanish, and ensure that someone is available to assist Spanish-speaking voters in person. It also will have to assist voters with disabilities, who have long been overlooked in the fight for access to the polls.
The consent decree, announced Tuesday, will need approval from a federal judge.
New Jersey is one of several places across the U.S. where language barriers hamper access to the ballot for minority communities, according to voter advocacy groups. Some Asian American and Asian immigrant communities are particularly affected, said Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, the associate director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Democracy Program.
“Despite a long history in the U.S., Asian Americans still face bias that views them as perpetual foreigners who aren’t ‘real Americans’ and don’t deserve to be a part of the fabric of our democracy,” she said.
Under the federal Voting Rights Act, communities must provide language assistance for voting if more than 5% of the voting-age citizens — or over 10,000 — have limited English proficiency.
It can be harder for Asian-speaking communities to be covered under federal law because there are so many languages to consider, said Bob Sakaniwa, director of policy and advocacy of Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote. Bangladeshi, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Hmong and Vietnamese are just some, he said.
For example, Asian communities make up a significant portion of Mercer, Hudson and Somerset counties in New Jersey, but the populations don’t meet the federal threshold for providing assistance. Arabic-speaking communities also are not reflected in New Jersey’s voting rights legislation, which state advocacy groups are still fighting to change.
Union County did not immediately respond when asked how it intended to implement the consent decree.
The New Jersey agreement underscores the importance of the federal Voting Rights Act, despite the landmark law being undermined by Supreme Court decisions and voting restrictions in Republican-led states. Henal Patel, law and policy director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said it’s important for local officials to comply with the act and for the federal government to enforce it.
“This is necessary for voters in these areas so that they can cast their ballots with a full understanding of what they’re voting for,” Patel said.
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