Language access

Meeting voters’ language accessibility needs

We want voters of all language capabilities to vote the way they intend. Getting information in languages other than English is not always easy. But the need is growing in urban areas and expanding out to more rural areas.

We’ve started, as part of a project for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), to explore the challenges that jurisdictions face in meeting language access requirements under the Voting Rights Act (VRA), Section 203. It’s a fascinating — and fluid — space to be in.

Language assistance under the VRA affects voters who are Asian American, Alaska Native, American Indian, and persons of Spanish heritage who have low English proficiency. Right now, about 22 million eligible voting-age citizens are covered under Section 203. Who are they? Where are they? And how can election administrators best serve them?

Implications for election administration and voting systems

We looked across all the sources we could find — about 40 that span topics from political science, to law, to studies by advocacy groups — to understand what is known now about challenges and best practices for providing voter information and education in languages other than English. From this analysis, we propose some implications for election administration and for the design of voting systems, and what the research gaps are. Some key insights include:

  • There is extremely little guidance on designing multi-language ballots and other materials for optimal usability by voters.
  • With coverage determinations every 5 years, requirements for language coverage may change within the expected life of a voting system.
  • To be effective, poll worker training needs to include bilingual poll worker support for language access.
  • Voters often are not aware that they could get materials in their preferred language.
  • Voting machines must support bilingual ballot printing and Unicode languages.
  • Voting systems must support audits in English, even if the ballot is in a language other than English.

This landscape analysis reveals that there are lots of questions to answer about how best to support election administrators and voters. It’s an area that we could be working on for some years (which we look forward to) to answering some questions like these:

Translation and transliteration

  • Are there any situations in which computer-generated translations are acceptable?
  • When transliteration is offered, what kinds of quality control can check for accuracy and consistency, especially within short timelines?

Voting systems

  • What core requirements from VVSG apply to ballots and associated information about voting used by voters with low English proficiency?
  • How can systems used in polling places and vote centers offer a consistent experience for voters with low English proficiency from beginning to end of the voting experience?

Ballots

  • For paper ballots, what is the best multi-language layout for ballot measures that have long text?
  • On digital ballots, should there be a specific requirement that digital interfaces be designed to toggle between languages rather than mixing them on the screen?
  • How are English names pronounced when they are on a screen with another language? Is recorded speech more successful at mixing languages?

White paper on designing election systems for language access

This is just the beginning of our work in the area of language access.

We developed the first white paper on this topic to understand the state of the coverage and service. We are actively seeking funding to answer the research questions above and to develop prototypes and templates to share with election officials.

Designing election systems for language access