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Some Idahoans can now vote in Spanish, Native languages: Who’s covered and what it means

Voting Polling Place sign in front road and gate
Bill Oxford/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Voting Polling Place sign in front road and gate

Access to multilingual ballots under Section 203 is just one of the ways the Voting Rights Act has long sought to increase electoral participation, write guest columnists Gabe Osterhout, Lantz McGinnis-Brown and Matthew May.

In Tuesday’s primary election, several Idaho counties must provide voting assistance in non-English languages. For most, this will be their first time doing so. Since its initial passage, the Voting Rights Act has sought to increase participation in elections by historically excluded groups. A 1975 amendment to the act, known as Section 203, extends protections to language minorities with historically low voter turnout — particularly Hispanic, Asian and Native populations.

Every five years, the U.S. Justice Department reviews jurisdictions nationwide in accordance with Section 203, looking at the demographics and literacy rates among minority populations in each jurisdiction to determine which areas fall under the Voting Rights Act. The most recent criteria were adopted in 1992. Its latest determinations were announced in December 2021 and impacted several Idaho counties.

Who is covered in Idaho?

Five Idaho counties are now required to provide non-English election materials. Clark County must offer Spanish language assistance, and the counties encompassing the Nez Perce Reservation — Clearwater, Idaho, Lewis, and Nez Perce — will translate materials into the Native language. Language assistance in these areas will continue through at least the 2024 and 2026 elections. Census data estimates around 1,800 voting age citizens from covered language groups live in these counties. Among them, approximately 100 have limited English proficiency.

Eleven counties in the state have been covered in the past 20 years. Beginning in 2002, the counties surrounding Fort Hall (Bannock, Bingham, Caribou, and Power) and Duck Valley (Owyhee) reservations were required to translate election materials into Native languages, but they all lost that requirement in 2011. Lincoln County was then required in 2016 to provide Spanish assistance for the 2018 and 2020 elections, but the 2021 Census determinations removed it from the list of covered areas.

Why are they covered?

For a jurisdiction to be covered under Voting Rights Act Section 203, a language minority group must have more than 5% or 10,000 voting age citizens who are limited-English proficient and its rate of voting age citizens with less than a fifth-grade education must be higher than the national average. For Native American reservations that meet these criteria, all jurisdictions that contain the reservation are covered.

In Idaho’s Hispanic communities, the 5% limited-English proficient threshold is the main deciding factor for whether a county is covered. This is because virtually every county (all 42 with data) is flagged for the education level requirement, yet no county meets the 10,000 voting age citizen limited-English proficient criteria (Canyon County’s 3,960 is the highest).

Clark County is covered for Spanish because just over 5% of its Hispanic voting age citizens are limited-English proficient. Minidoka County narrowly missed the threshold (4.9%) and appears to be among the likeliest candidates for Spanish coverage in the future. The next highest rates are in Owyhee (3.8%), Power (3.4%), and Jerome (3.3%) counties.

Clearwater, Idaho, Lewis, and Nez Perce counties are covered because the Nez Perce Reservation population meets both the limited-English proficiency (5.6% of voting age citizens) and education level criteria.

What is required of counties?

Counties are required to provide assistance in the covered language. This not only includes ballots but also information on “voter registration, candidate qualifying, polling place notices, sample ballots, instructional forms, voter information pamphlets, and absentee and regular ballots,” as well as oral assistance through bilingual poll workers.

Why does it matter?

Studies indicate that language assistance and translated materials likely make it easier for populations that don’t speak English well to participate in elections. In any election, voters choose whether or not they will cast a ballot — with only 36.9% voter turnout in the 2020 Idaho primary, many choose not to. Access to translated ballots can ensure this choice stays with the voter, rather than a systematic barrier making the choice for them.

Although the federal government attempts to sufficiently educate affected counties, the requirements that come with coverage under Section 203 are complex. Despite best efforts, unfamiliarity with these requirements can lead to fragmented implementation and significant differences in the way counties carry out the requirements, where the experience of a language minority in one county may not match the experience in another county.

A key factor in increasing access to the ballot box is public education — if voters who could benefit from newly translated materials are not aware that these materials exist, then it may not affect their participation in elections. Unfortunately, public outreach requires financial resources, and many smaller counties have limited budgets. The frequent changing of designations can also make it hard for citizens and county administrators to keep up.

The Voting Rights Act has long sought to increase electoral participation among historically excluded groups. Access to multilingual ballots under Section 203 is just one of the ways it seeks to advance this mission. As several Idaho counties begin implementing these requirements, the hope is that this can increase electoral participation and ensure more voters are accurately informed, resulting in a healthier democracy.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.