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Federal Court Finds That Portions of the Texas Election Code Governing Voters’ Use of an Interpreter Are Inconsistent With The Voting Rights Act

Professional translation of voting instructions are vital for the enforcement of the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. In OCA Greater Houston v. State of Texas, case No. 15-CV-00679 filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, a registered voter and a voting advocacy group filed suit against the State of Texas for its enforcement of certain provisions of the Texas Election Code governing the assistance provided to voters with a limited ability to understand English.

One of the provisions at issue allows a voter to select an interpreter of his or her choice if the election officer does not understand the particular language spoken by the voter. In order to serve as an interpreter, however, the interpreter must be a registered voter in the same county as the voter needing assistance. In addition, the Texas Election Code requires that the voter may only use the interpreter’s assistance when the voter’s ballot or carrier envelope were present.

The plaintiffs alleged that the above provisions of the Texas Election Code violated the Voting Rights Act, which specifically provides that: “[a]ny voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice, other than the voter’s employer or agent of that employer or officer or agent of the voter’s union.”

The plaintiffs’ suit stemmed from an incident that transpired when Mallika Das, now deceased, attempted to vote in the 2014 election. Ms. Das brought her son with her to assist her when she went to vote in that election because she had limited proficiency in English and had found it difficult to vote in previous elections. At the polling place, county election officials refused to allow the plaintiff’s son to translate for her because he was not a registered voter in the county in which she was attempting to vote. As a result, the plaintiff had to vote without the benefit of language assistance from her son.

Because the individual plaintiff died before the court ruled on summary judgment, the case proceed based solely on the claims of the advocacy group, OCA-Greater Houston. The court granted summary judgment in the advocacy group’s favor, finding that the Voting Rights Act “operates as a negative obligation on states, requiring that they not limit voters’ rights to assistance by a person of their choice.” Id. Specifically, the court found that the Texas Election Code violated the Voting Rights Act because it restricted the voter’s choice of an interpreter to a registered voter in the same county and restricted the voter from obtaining assistance when outside the presence of the voter’s ballot or carrier envelope. The court then entered an order temporarily enjoining the defendants from enforcing the Texas Election Code to the extent it violated the Voting Rights Act

The plaintiffs sought a permanent injunction, and the court agreed that plaintiffs were entitled to one. The court held that “the public interest would undoubtedly be best served by an injunction, which would ensure that all Texas voters receive the right to assistance in voting provided by Section 208 of [The Voting Rights Act].” The court noted that the defendant had previously begun compliance efforts, including sending an email to more than 4,800 election officials informing them of the court’s earlier order and informing them how to comply with the order. The defendants also informed the court of their intention to post the court’s order on the Secretary of State’s website and to revise their handbook/training materials to comply with the court order.

The parties then settled the lawsuit at a later date, giving county voters the freedom to select any translator they like to assist them during the voting process.

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