Advocates ask Iowa SOS to allow Spanish-language voting materials

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) has petitioned the Iowa Secretary of State’s office to allow elections officials in all 99 counties to accept official Spanish-language translations of voter registration and absentee ballot request forms.

The Secretary of State’s office has not yet replied to the petition and did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries about the matter. If it doesn’t issue the requested order within 60 days of the filing date (July 28), Iowa’s largest Latino advocacy group can go to court seeking an exception for voting materials from Iowa’s 2002 “English language reaffirmation” statute, more commonly known as the English-only law.

A DISPROPORTIONATE BURDEN ON IOWA’S SPANISH-SPEAKING VOTERS

Secretary of State Chet Culver, a Democrat, began providing voter registration forms in languages other than English in 2003. An Iowa administrative rule allowed county auditors to provide those materials in other languages if “such a form would be of value” in that county. The Secretary of State’s office was producing voter materials in Spanish, Laotian, Bosnian, and Vietnamese in 2006, and Democrat Michael Mauro continued the practice after he took office as secretary of state in 2007.

U.S. Representative Steve King, who had championed the English-only bill in the Iowa Senate, led a group of Republican plaintiffs who filed suit in 2007.

Polk County District Judge Douglas Staskal ruled in the King v Mauro case (2008) that a plain reading of the Iowa Code showed “the legislature intended English to be the exclusive language used in official documents unless one of the exceptions is implicated.” The full decision is available here (pdf).

Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, has said the English-only law prohibits the production of voting materials in any other language in all counties except for Buena Vista and Tama, which are both subject to the minority language protections in Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act. Tama qualified because of its large Native American population. Buena Vista met the criteria because of its large Latino population (at least 26 percent of county residents), and now provides all voting and election related information in Spanish as well as English. Many immigrants have settled in the Storm Lake area, which has several large meatpacking plants.

Following Pate’s interpretation, other county auditors have told LULAC they cannot provide voters with the official Spanish-language translations of the state’s voter registration and absentee ballot request forms.

LULAC argues in its petition (enclosed in full below) that voting-age Latino citizens in other Iowa counties, or Spanish-speaking Buena Vista residents who may move elsewhere within the state, “are disproportionately burdened” by the current interpretation of the English-only law. “Our democracy works best when every Iowa voter can participate in the process,” said LULAC Iowa State Director Nick Salazar in an August 2 news release. “Forcing Spanish-speaking voters to vote in a language they do not understand denies their right to vote and weakens the integrity of our elections.” 

In addition, the petition notes LULAC is forced “to divert resources and attention from other critical missions to assist voters with limited English-language proficiency,” who could complete those forms “with less (or no) assistance if they were permitted to use Iowa’s official Spanish-language voting materials.”

I was unable to find a reliable estimate for the number of Spanish-speaking eligible voters in Iowa, but approximately 200,000 Iowans (some 6.3 percent of the state’s population) are Latino, at least 130,000 of whom speak Spanish at home. Crawford County now has a larger share of Latino residents than Buena Vista, and Marshall County is not far behind.

KEY ARGUMENT NOT RAISED IN EARLIER CASE

LULAC’s petition highlights a road not taken when the state defended against the King v Mauro lawsuit. The English-only law contained many exceptions, including one stating it “shall not apply” to “Any language usage required by or necessary to secure the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America or the Constitution of the State of Iowa.” For that reason, Attorney General Tom Miller had determined then Secretary of State Culver could provide voter information in additional languages.

Somehow, the state did not raise that point in Polk County District Court. Instead, the state claimed providing voter registration forms in other languages was allowed under an exception for actions a government officer considers “necessary or desirable.” Judge Staskal rejected that argument, saying such an interpretation would allow officials to disregard the English-only mandate “anytime for any reason.”

The judge noted in his ruling that the exception for language necessary to secure rights “might justify the use of non-English voter registration forms.”

Recognizing that language barriers can serve as an impediment to voting, the federal Voting Rights Act prohibits any state or political subdivision from imposing or applying any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure” on the right to vote which results in an abridgement of voting rights for language minorities. […] However, the Respondents have not argued and there is nothing in the record that would support the contention that the Respondents’ challenged activities were undertaken as a result of the determination that they were necessary or required to secure the right to vote to all citizens.

LULAC Iowa’s state political director Joe Henry said in the August 2 news release, “The Iowa Constitution and the state of Iowa has a long history of ensuring the right to vote, including the right to provide election material to voters in languages other than English.” But “that right has been denied” because of what Henry called a “misinterpretation” of the 2008 court ruling. He added that providing voter information in other languages would enfranchise thousands of non-English speaking U.S. citizens.

Henry told Bleeding Heartland on August 9 that one “big question” is why Secretary of State Mauro didn’t “go back to the court to argue that the law violated the U.S. constitution.” Staskal’s ruling “had left open the door” for that option, in Henry’s view. Miller told the Des Moines Register in 2008 he would explore an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, but the state did not do so. (Appellate courts often don’t allow parties to raise arguments that were not brought before a lower court.)

LULAC now wants Pate to declare that using Spanish-language election forms is necessary to secure the fundamental right to vote and to comply with federal law. That would allow auditors in all 99 counties to accept the state’s Spanish-language forms for voter registration and absentee ballot requests, and the official Spanish-language version of the National Mail Voter Registration Form.

Given Pate’s past public comments, I would be shocked if he responded favorably to LULAC’s petition. Assuming the Secretary of State’s office doesn’t issue the declaratory order within 60 days, LULAC will take the same legal arguments to District Court.

Final note: Although the 2008 case is known as King v Mauro, Judge Staskal determined that King and several other plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge Mauro’s decision to make voter registration forms available in other languages or the associated administrative rule. The case would have been dismissed if King had not also enlisted four county auditors to join the lawsuit.

One of those petitioners was Montgomery County’s auditor: Joni Ernst.


Appendix 1: Full text of the petition filed with the Secretary of State’s office on July 28.

Appendix 2: August 2 news release from LULAC Iowa:

LULAC IOWA FILES PETITION FOR CLARIFICATION OVER VOTING MATERIALS IN SPANISH

Latino civil rights organization questions Iowa’s “English-Only Law” and asks Iowa Secretary of State to allow all counties to use Spanish-translated materials.

DES MOINES, IOWA — The League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa (LULAC of Iowa) says that the access to vote should be clear and simple for all registered voters in the state. The group recently filed a petition for declaratory order with the Iowa Secretary of State asking for clarification about whether state election officials can use and accept Spanish language voting materials and forms, specifically the National Mail Voter Registration Form, the State of Iowa Official Voter Registration Form and the State of Iowa Official Absentee Ballot Request Form.

“Our democracy works best when every Iowa voter can participate in the process. Forcing Spanish-speaking voters to vote in a language they do not understand denies their right to vote and weakens the integrity of our elections,” said LULAC Iowa State Director Nick Salazar. “This petition is a step towards making sure that all Iowan voters are heard at the ballot box.”

“The Iowa Constitution and the state of Iowa has a long history of ensuring the right to vote, including the right to provide election material to voters in languages other than English.  Due to a continuing misinterpretation of a 2007 court decision regarding a law enacted in 2002 by the state legislature, that right has been denied,” explains Joe Henry, LULAC Iowa’s Political Director. “Since then, thousands of non-English speaking U.S. Citizens have been unable to access voter information from local and state officials in languages, such as Spanish, that would ensure the right to vote as guaranteed by the laws of the United States and constitution of the state of Iowa.”

The petition asks for clarification around Iowa’s “English-Only Law,” which states that all political documents from the state “shall be in the English language.” Beyond a vague court ruling in 2008, the Iowa Secretary of State has not provided county officials or the public any clear guidance about whether officially translated, non-English voting materials are permissible. Because of this uncertainty, Iowa election officials exclusively provide English language voting materials across the state (except for in two counties covered by the Voting Rights Act that must provide translated materials, one of which must provide Spanish language materials). LULAC of Iowa asserts that the lack of officially translated Spanish language forms and guidance is overly burdensome for the state’s largest language minority population. The petition asks the Iowa Secretary of State to allow all counties to use officially translated Spanish language voting materials.

The Secretary now has 60 days to respond, after which legal action can be brought.

Top photo first published on LULAC Iowa’s website.

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