The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Myths & Facts about Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act

Myth: A majority of voters protected by Section 203 are immigrants.

Fact: Section 203 only provides language assistance to covered United States voting-age citizens who are not fluent in English. According to the 2000 Census, three-quarters of all voters covered by Section 203 are Native born voting-age citizens. [Sources: 42 U.S.C. § 1973aa-1a; U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, We the People series; 1986 GAO Report at p. 61]

Myth: Section 203 discourages people from learning English.

Fact: New immigrants are already required to learn English to become citizens, but ballots and voting instructions can be confusing, even for native speakers. Language assistance ensures taxpaying citizens their right to cast a proper and informed ballot. [Sources: H.R. REP. NO. 102-655 at 8; S. 2236 Hearings, 102d Cong., 2d Sess., S. HRG. 102-1066, at 328]

Myth: Language assistance and written materials are required even if they are not used.

Fact: Section 203 merely requires that a covered jurisdiction provide written materials or oral assistance based upon the actual needs of the language-minority groups through targeted assistance. Section 203 does not “require the impossible.” No bilingual written materials have to be provided for Alaska Native and American Indian languages that are historically unwritten. [Sources: 42 U.S.C. §§ 1973b(f)(4), 1973aa-1a(c); S. REP. NO. 94-295 at 39; 121 CONG. REC. H4718 (June 2, 1975) (statement of Rep. Edwards)]

Myth: Section 203 is costly.

Fact: Where implemented properly, language assistance accounts for only a small fraction of total elections costs, if any at all. In a 2005 study of election officials in the 31 states covered by Section 203, a majority of jurisdictions reported that they incur no additional costs for providing oral or written language assistance, with most of the remaining jurisdictions incurring additional expenses of less than 1.5% for oral language assistance and less than 3% for written language assistance. These findings are consistent with the findings in two GAO studies in 1984 and 1997. [Sources: Tucker & Espino Report; 1984 GAO Report; 1997 GAO Report]

Myth: Section 203 is not needed by voters.

Fact: Language barriers continue to restrict access to voting for many citizens. The Section 203 coverage formula relies upon language ability and illiteracy rates determined by the Bureau of the Census. The need for assistance among covered groups is extreme: in the covered jurisdictions, an average of 13.1 percent of covered language-minority voting age citizens are limited-English proficient with an illiteracy rate nearly fourteen times that of the national average. [Sources: 42 U.S.C. § 1973aa-1a(b)(2); H.R. REP. NO. 102-655 at 8; July 2002 Census Determinations for Section 203 Coverage]

Myth: The language assistance provisions are unfairly limited to certain languages.

Fact: Congress has continually found that the four covered groups (Alaska Natives, American Indians, Asians, and Spanish Heritage persons) have faced and continue to face significant voting discrimination due to “unequal educational opportunities afforded them, resulting in high illiteracy and low voting participation.” Other language groups have not been included because there is no evidence that shows they experienced similar sustained difficulties in voting. [Sources: 42 U.S.C. § 1973aa-1a(a); S. REP. NO. 94-295 at 31]

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