Many Languages, One Democracy

Participation in the democratic process takes many forms, but perhaps none is accorded as much importance as voting. For the many new Americans in our country, one significant barrier to exercising this important democratic right was reduced last week when the Census Bureau issued the newest list of jurisdictions in which language assistance must be provided during elections for individuals whose English language skills may limit them from participating fully in the electoral process. This year's list, while it covers only 3.1 percent of the counties and civil divisions in our country, will increase the ability of nearly 20 million U.S. citizens from the American Indian/Alaskan native, Asian American, and Latino communities to exercise their right to participate in the democratic process. Language access is a significant deterrent at the polls, and the provisions in Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act recognized that reducing this barrier can engage more Americans in the political process.

Although language assistance, in the form of bilingual poll workers and ballots, will make the path to participation smoother in the 2012 elections and beyond, many new Americans remain unaware that this assistance is available. Getting new Americans to the polls, and ensuring that they know to ask for language assistance when they arrive, is a heavy lift that community organizations and civic engagement groups must bear. Groups like the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund have deployed volunteers at polling sites likely to draw immigrant voters and offered case assistance to those whose right to language access is violated on Election Day.

Election Day can be a significant milestone in new American participation, but the road to that important event is paved with strong commitment and targeted resources that help our country's newest citizens understand their rights and obligations to the democratic process. For example, growth in Latino populations in the Aleutians East Borough, AK and in Fairfax County, VA mean that those communities will benefit from Spanish-language assistance, which may help to increase Latino voter registration. Nationally, only 11 million of the 21.3 million eligible Latino voters are actually registered. Additionally, the creation of language assistance in Hamtramck, MI (Bengali), Clark County, Nevada (Tagalog) and Quincy City, Massachusetts (Chinese) can prompt some of the country's 7.6 eligible Asian American voters to register and vote. At this time, only 3.8 are registered.

All of us with roots in the immigrant community, personal or professional, bear the responsibility of preparing our friends, family, neighbors and colleagues to be full participants in the civic and political processes of our country -- from registering to vote to requesting language-specific support at the polls. That responsibility begins today and never ends.