A nonprofit founded by allies of President Joe Biden is launching a new voting rights effort to ensure that Latino and Asian voters who speak limited English are granted bilingual resources as required by federal law.
Building Back Together — in partnership with several progressive groups, Latino and Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders — will start what they call a "language justice committee" to educate local organizations to report language access violations to the Justice Department in cities and counties that aren’t complying with federal law.
The effort comes as Democrats have been unable to pass major federal voting rights legislation, an early priority for the Biden administration, amid a wave of Republican-led bills being advanced across the country that would restrict voting access.
“There’s a huge opportunity and huge need… to make sure we can bring more attention and resources to what we’re calling language justice issues for American citizens who are eligible to vote but may not be fully fluent in English,” Matt Barreto, a senior advisor to Build Back Together and long-time pollster, said ahead of the announcement, which was shared with POLITICO.
The new effort looks to build on the record turnout from Latino and Asian American voters last year. Though Biden won a majority of their votes, Republicans saw modest gains with Latinos and Asian Americans — inroads that Democrats are trying to stop heading into 2022.
The language justice committee will be made up of representatives from Building Back Together, as well as members from organizations such as Priorities USA, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Latino Victory Project and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. It represents the first national initiative focused on language access issues — a lesser discussed aspect of voting rights.
Under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, jurisdictions where there are more than 10,000 or over 5 percent of the total voting age citizens who are part of a single language group and speak limited English must be provided bilingual election-related information. That includes access to bilingual poll workers, multilingual signage outside polling sites and translated voting signs. It targets Latinos, Asians and Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, which the Justice Department describes as "groups that Congress found to have faced barriers in the political process."
The list of jurisdictions covered under Section 203 has not been updated since 2016, prior to former President Donald Trump taking office. Barreto explained that many more jurisdictions across the country now qualify to be covered under the law and it could have an impact on voters from Georgia to the Midwest.
Some of the areas the committee will be targeting include jurisdictions in North and Central Georgia, as well as counties in Central Florida, including Seminole County, where there’s an increasing Latino, and specifically, Puerto Rican population, a spokesperson for the group said.
The group — which is starting with Spanish and Asian language access before expanding to access for Native communities — also plans to draft notice letters to jurisdictions not fully compliant and file requests under the Freedom of Information Act to document and compile a database on language access violations. A spokesperson for the group couldn’t offer a specific dollar amount but said there will be spending committed to the effort.
“The first thing we have to do is bring a lot more attention to the issue to make sure that cities and counties understand this is the law and they need to comply,” Barreto said. “And by doing that, we expect to immediately have an impact where lots of jurisdictions start providing bilingual election materials.”
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