Limited-English voters face barriers to casting ballots in Arkansas

By: - September 27, 2022 7:00 am

(Getty Images)

Language poses a big challenge for voters with limited English proficiency in Arkansas, where ballots are only printed in English.

Newly naturalized citizens are often afraid to vote because they don’t understand the ballot, said Mireya Reith, executive director of immigrant advocacy group Arkansas United.

Voters with limited English proficiency also worry poll workers won’t be able to answer questions in any language other than English, she said.

Nearly 2,200 Arkansans became naturalized citizens in fiscal year 2020, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Approximately 17,700 Arkansans were naturalized between 2011 and 2020.

“We know that language is critical and respect the belief in our members that they’d rather not make a mistake in their voting than not vote,” Reith said. “We want them to vote and we want to get over this barrier with them.”

Federal law requires counties or cities where more than 10,000 or over 5% of voting-age citizens who are non-English-speaking to provide ballots in a limited number of languages — Spanish, Asian and Native American languages. The Census Bureau determines which jurisdictions are subject to the law’s requirement for translated ballots.

Advocates for non-English-speaking groups and voting rights “contend the federal threshold is too high and does not cover enough languages, leaving voters in many immigrant communities unable to fully understand election materials,” according to a May article in Stateline, a publication of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The article notes that translation of election materials is required in 331 jurisdictions in 30 states.

No political subdivision in Arkansas is required to provide translated materials under that section of the Voting Rights Act, but U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks wrote in an August ruling that a different section prohibits the state from enforcing a 2009 law that limited the number of voters an interpreter could help.

Court's Order re Ark United
Arkansas United v Thurston

In 2020, Arkansas United partnered with MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) to sue Arkansas election officials, including Secretary of State John Thurston. The lawsuit challenges the state’s six-person limit as a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The state’s lawyers argued that the purpose of the 2009 law prohibiting someone other than poll workers from assisting more than six voters in casting a ballot was to prevent individuals from “unduly influencing voters’ decisions” at the polls.

The law also required each assistant to fill out an Assisted Voter Card for every voter they helped, allowing the state to track which individuals assisted which voters.

The ruling allows the tracking system to continue, but the court ordered state election officials to cease enforcement of the law in advance of the 2022 General Election and to update Assisted Voter Cards and other election materials so they no longer reference the six-person limit.

“Any limited English proficient voter anywhere in the state of Arkansas should have the ability to be able to feel confident in any voting center that their rights are going to be protected,” Reith said. “At the very least, if those accommodations aren’t being made locally, they know that they can bring the interpreter of their choice and that that is protected.”

Federal court records for the Western District of Arkansas show that the secretary of state’s office filed notice that it intends to appeal Brooks’ ruling to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals but has been granted extensions for filing until Oct. 24.

The secretary of state’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Voter information in English and Spanish

  • The final day to register to vote in the General Election is Oct. 11. Voter registration forms are available in English and Spanish on the Arkansas secretary of state’s website.
  • The Public Policy Center within the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service, created a handout about the state’s election process. The infosheet is available in English and Spanish.

Expanding Outreach

The MALDEF case ruling is “a huge first step” in getting more limited English proficiency voters to the polls, and the timing is good, Reith said, because it leaves plenty of time to finalize election outreach plans.

Arkansas United, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in August, has predominantly worked on volunteer coordination. The nonprofit has also built awareness around bilingual poll worker opportunities, but Reith said many Arkansas immigrants are economic migrants, so the “idea of somebody having an additional ability to take an additional job or to take leave of a job to poll work is rare and hard in our community.”

Ahead of the November election, Arkansas United plans to register voters as well as remind immigrants about the upcoming election and deadlines through phone banks and door-knocking efforts. The group is also gathering information about who needs interpretation help before diving into volunteer coordination.

The removal of the six-person limit on translators will put less strain on resources when organizing election interpreters this year, Reith said.

Traditionally, Arkansas United has focused on Spanish-speaking voters, but the organization is expanding its work to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. For example, the nonprofit has spoken with the Marshallese Educational Initiative, a Springdale-based nonprofit, about translating some of its voter education materials into Marshallese.

Northwest Arkansas is home to an estimated 20,000 Marshallese residents, according to the Marshallese Consulate General in Springdale. The state has one of the largest populations of Marshallese residents outside of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Voter education is a new focus for MEI, which has served the Marshallese population since 2013. The community has not been politically active historically, MEI executive director Benetick Maddison said.

“People in the community, they’re shy and they’re afraid,” he said. “There’s still this trust issue that we have with Western culture and the way things work here in the U.S.”

The United States conducted nearly 70 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. Under a Compact of Free Association that took effect in 1986, Marshallese citizens can apply for admission as nonimmigrants without visas to the United States, where they may live, work and study.

Members of the older generation often retain their Marshallese citizenship, and because they aren’t familiar with the democratic process, the younger generation, who are U.S. citizens by birth, aren’t often engaged in elections, Maddison said. It’s important to help elders understand the process so they can educate young voters and encourage them to speak for the community, he added.

Information about polling locations and candidates’ positions on issues aren’t readily available in Marshallese, so language is a barrier for voter education. Teaching all ages about the election process is imperative because it takes a village to create change, Maddison said.

“We always say that those who were born here, you are the voices of your community,” he said. “You are the voices of those who are not able to vote because your vote can actually mean something. It can actually create change.”

MEI’s voter registration efforts have focused on meeting voters where they are. After inquiring about voter registration status via social media, MEI staff members have visited homes of Marshallese residents who wanted to register, helped them fill out the form and submitted applicants’ paperwork.

While strides have been made to register more Marshallese voters, a lack of access to transportation often prevents them from making it to the polls. Maddison is hopeful more Marshallese voters will turn out in November, but said he’ll have to keep encouraging his community to participate, and work to ensure election information is available in Marshallese.

“It’s one thing to talk to each other and complain about this and that, but it’s another when you actually participate in the process because then that’s going to encourage more people within the community to get out, register and vote,” he said.

An Ongoing Battle

Despite the victory in the MALDEF lawsuit, Reith anticipates conflicts with other Arkansas laws, like a 2021 law that prohibits a person from standing within 100 feet of a polling place entrance. Reith worries that volunteers supporting interpreters could be falsely classified as line warmers.

State law requiring matching identification can also create issues for immigrants because of multiple surnames, lack of a middle name or issues with the spelling of a name, which is a common issue among the Asian community, she said.

“That’s going to make us especially vigilant this year at all levels of the process just because so much of those additional laws are about name matching and going to your original voter registration form,” Reith said.

“We get concerned because even before those laws were in place, the names of members of our community and the IDs presented a barrier and challenge.”

Arkansas United joined the League of Women Voters of Arkansas in filing a lawsuit against the secretary of state and the State Board of Election Commissioners in May 2021 challenging four new voting laws, including the line-warming ban and signature-match requirement for mail-in ballot applications.

In March 2022, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ordered a permanent injunction of the laws. The defendants appealed the case to the Arkansas Supreme Court and filed for their fourth and final extension Sept. 22. The deadline to file is Oct. 24, the first day of early voting.

Language support must be provided at the polls and in civic education, Reith said.

Materials distributed by the secretary of state, county election commissions and candidates are often only available in English. Additionally, candidates typically only host events in English and speak with ethnic media outlets less frequently than they do English-language outlets, she said.

“Education is also imperative to our community, to build their confidence in again being able to vote and that they have the same access to information to make that same informed decision that other Arkansas voters are taking,” Reith said.



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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.