The Justice Department reached an agreement with a county in New Jersey on language barriers for Spanish-speaking voters, underscoring a growing challenge for some minority communities nationwide.
The Union County settlement comes after federal prosecutors filed a lawsuit alleging it failed to make registration and voting notices, forms, instructions and ballots available in Spanish, in violation of the articles of the federal law on voting rights.
“We know first-hand how much language barriers hurt our community,” said Hector Sanchez Barba, chief executive of Mi Familia Vota, a national group seeking to build political influence among Latinos. “Eliminating language barriers is not only legally valid, but also the right thing to do to strengthen our democracy.”
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The county, which has nearly 28,000 Spanish-speaking citizens of voting age, will need to print all election materials in English and Spanish and ensure someone is available to assist Spanish-speaking voters in person. It will also have to help voters with disabilities, who have long been neglected in the fight for access to the polls.
The consent decree, announced Tuesday, will need to be approved by a federal judge.
New Jersey is one of many places in the United States 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, associate director of the democracy program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“Despite a long history in the United States, Asian Americans still face prejudices that view them as perpetual outsiders who are not ‘real Americans’ and undeserving of being part of the fabric of our democracy. “, she said.
Under federal suffrage law, communities must provide language assistance to vote if more than 5% of citizens of voting age — or more than 10,000 — have limited English proficiency.
It may be harder for Asian-speaking communities to be covered by federal law because there are so many languages to consider, said Bob Sakaniwa, director of Asian and Islander policy and advocacy. Pacific American Vote. Bangladeshis, Cambodians, Chinese, Filipinos, Hmong and Vietnamese are just a few, he said.
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For example, Asian communities make up a significant portion of Mercer, Hudson, and Somerset counties in New Jersey, but the populations do not meet the federal aid threshold. Nor are Arabic-speaking communities 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 federal voting rights law, though the landmark law is undermined by Supreme Court rulings and voting restrictions in Republican-led states. Henal Patel, director of law and policy at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said it was important for local authorities to comply with the law and for the federal government to enforce it.
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“This is necessary for voters in these areas so that they can vote knowing full well what they are voting for,” Patel said.