House Bill 20-1081: Should the state require some counties to provide multilingual ballots?
Point: Yadira Caraveo
When I was running for office in Adams County, I realized that there was a systemic problem with our elections. When I knocked on doors across my district, I met registered voters who had ballots in hand, yet they could not read them. As my staff and I explored this issue, we realized that the county provided little help for these voters. For one of Colorado’s largest counties, there was only one person in the Clerk’s office who could help voters translate their ballots. Meanwhile, voting centers had no instructions for Spanish-speaking voters. Some election staff suggested to us that voters should bring their children into the booth so that they could translate the ballot.
After I won, I looked into this issue and learned that thousands of Coloradans are effectively barred from participating in our democracy because they cannot understand the ballot. According to American Community Survey data, 103,146 eligible voters in Colorado do not speak English “very well” and primarily speak another language. While federal law requires four counties in Colorado to provide multilingual ballots (Conejos, Costilla, Denver, and Saguache), approximately 82,096 of these citizens live in counties where election materials are only provided in English. This “not very well” standard excludes voters who can speak English well and yet struggle with our complicated ballot language, so these statistics actually underestimate the number of struggling voters.
That is why I have worked on legislation for over a year to establish a multilingual ballot access program designed with our unique election system in mind. In 2020, certain counties will be required to provide sample translated ballots for their voters. Lowering the federal thresholds, we will expand the number of counties required to provide multilingual ballots from four to 22. After the 2020 cycle, we will have a translation hotline for voters across the state so that Coloradans can receive help, and designated counties will have to provide translated ballots on-demand at voting centers. Whether a voter lives in Denver or Grand Junction, they will be able to read their ballots and confidently cast their votes.
Let me highlight how this bill will support voters in El Paso County specifically. The county currently does not provide multilingual ballots and is not required to do so under federal law. As of the recent American Community Survey (ACS), 9,778 eligible voters primarily speak another language and do not speak English very well, including 5,496 eligible voters who primarily speak Spanish and do not speak English very well. Again, the ACS standard is very strict, so these statistics exclude voters who can speak English well but struggle to read the technical language on our ballots. By requiring multilingual ballots, this bill will directly improve ballot access for citizens in El Paso County.
While I can provide more numbers, I want to talk about two voters in particular: my mom and dad. I am the proud daughter of an immigrant family. My parents are proud citizens of this country, and they celebrate their right to vote and make their voices heard. For years, my family has gotten together to go over the ballots and translate them over our dining table, yet not every family can go over their ballots together.
This bill represents an opportunity to strengthen our democracy and ensure that all citizens can participate in our democracy. Voting is a fundamental right that generations of Americans have fought for, and we can ensure that more citizens can exercise that right by expanding multilingual ballot access.
Counterpoint: Patrick Neville
Soon, the Colorado House of Representatives will take a final vote on HB20-1081, which would require Colorado’s Secretary of State and county clerks to make multilingual ballots available throughout the state. This legislation is being rammed through by Democrats, who have not so much as asked for Republican input. Ballot access is an important issue, and the citizens’ right to vote is sacrosanct. We, as a state, must promote participation in the electoral process and encourage our citizens to exercise their right to vote, but HB20-1081 is unnecessary and expensive.
Colorado has already gone to great lengths to ensure that non-English speaking residents have open access to our electoral process. Four of Colorado’s counties already provide ballots in Spanish (Conejos, Costilla, Denver and Saguache), where the need for a Spanish ballot is already required under the federal Voting Rights Act. But HB20-1081 unnecessarily and vastly expands the current federal standard and makes Coloradans foot the bill.
The new bill’s cost to the state is calculated to be around $80,000, but similar efforts across the country cast doubt on the legitimacy of this number. Orange County, California, spent nearly $600,000 from 2004 to 2005 translating and distributing ballots in non-English languages. Orange County’s population is 55% of Colorado’s. It is more than concerning that in one year, Orange County spent seven times what has been asked for in this statewide bill. If this bill is signed into law, how long will it take for Democrats to turn around and ask for more money?
The fiscal note prepared by non-partisan staff also suggests that large counties may have to spend up to $350,000 to accommodate translations and printing. That is a significant financial burden to place on counties that will now have to address the new regulation, possibly through tax or fee increases.
The bill also mandates the creation of a translator hotline to be at the ready for any ballot translation needs, yet the fiscal note on the bill has zero new full-time employees (FTEs). A new FTE regularly gets slapped on legislation that asks for far less. Are we to believe that the state will set up and operate this hotline with zero additional employees? Such efficiency is rare, if not unheard of, for as long as I have served in the legislature.
Democrats ignore the fact that we are a predominantly English-speaking country. There is not an official language of the United States, but our laws, statutes, and legal documents are written and drafted in English. Even the citizenship test, itself, is only printed in English. All new citizens are required to prove English proficiency. If one of the most basic preconditions of becoming a citizen of the United States is the ability to read and write in English, then why should Colorado go beyond the federal requirements of non-English ballots? The federal standards laid out in the Voting Rights Act — which Colorado currently meets — are more than sufficient to meet our needs as a state. It is unnecessary to ask Coloradans to fork over an indeterminate amount of money to an issue that the federal government has already addressed.
We, as the General Assembly, have to be responsible with the resources the taxpayers have given us. I cannot, in good faith, vote for a bill that is not only unnecessary, but has unpredictable (and potentially great) costs. This is not an issue that affects many Coloradans, yet the writers of the bill ask all taxpayers to pay to fix it. Yes, we need to be accommodating and inclusive to minority populations — and we are, but HB20-1081 is not responsible legislation.
Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Democrat, represents House District 31 in the Colorado General Assembly. Rep. Patrick Neville, a Republican, represents House District 45 in the Colorado General Assembly and serves as the House minority leader.