New law expands threshold for providing multilingual ballot services in Colorado
COLORADO — In the November 2022 election, 20 Colorado counties will be required to provide Spanish language voting materials thanks to a new state law lowering the population thresholds to support multilingual voters — but some counties already made a jump to help long before they were required to.
The Multilingual Ballot Access for Voters law establishes a statewide hotline the secretary of state’s office will operate during election season to provide translation services for ballot language. It also requires Colorado counties with a minority language spoken by at least 2,000 voting-age citizens or 2.5% of voting-age citizens to provide a sample ballot in that language online, and voters can request an actual live ballot in the language at in-person voting centers, too.
The bill passed in the 2021 legislative session after being pushed off due to COVID the prior year, and the November 2022 election will be the first time municipalities are required to comply.
“With the new multilingual ballot hotline and expanded access to multilingual ballots, all eligible Coloradans can feel confident in casting their ballot,” Secretary of State Jena Griswold said in an email. “As Secretary of State, it is my duty to deliver accessible elections for every eligible Coloradan, no matter their zip code, political affiliation, or primary language. I’m proud to make this important resource available to Colorado voters.”
Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act enacted federal requirements to provide multilingual ballots under higher thresholds. Only six Colorado counties — Adams, Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Denver and Saguache — were required to provide Spanish language ballot material under federal regulations. Under Colorado’s new law, that figure goes up to 20 counties: Adams, Alamosa, Arapahoe, Bent, Boulder, Conejos, Costilla, Denver, Eagle, El Paso, Fremont, Garfield, Jefferson, Lincoln, Montrose, Morgan, Prowers, Rio Grande, Saguache and Weld.
Colorado also has two counties — La Plata and Montezuma — that qualify federally for language services in Ute, which representatives from the secretary of state’s office said can be a challenge since Ute isn’t a written language. This means these counties mostly use translation services as opposed to providing translated ballots.
Counties with experience
Some of the counties required to provide multilingual ballot materials have already been doing so either because of federal requirements or because of their clerk’s offices allocating funding to support multilingual voters.
Arapahoe County doesn’t meet federal requirements for multilingual ballots, and while it does qualify under the new state law, it’s been using its own resources to provide language assistance since the first election of 2020.
Peg Perl, Arapahoe County’s director of elections, said the county started by providing a Spanish sample ballot online and at a vote center, since it’s the second most-common language in the county behind English. The county also has its own hotline to provide translation services in around 100 languages year-round for anyone who calls Arapahoe County’s voter hotline or comes into the elections office to register.
When the Multilingual Ballot Access law went through the legislative process, Perl said Arapahoe County’s clerk testified in favor of it and shared information about the work already being done in their county. The only big change they will need to make under Colorado’s new law is having the live ballots in Spanish on site at voting centers for those who request one, which Perl called “the final piece of the puzzle.”
Perl said bringing translation services statewide will be beneficial for folks who want to vote without the help of a family member or friend translating for them and knowing what they’re voting for and why. Since implementing sample ballots and translation services in Arapahoe County, Perl said the office has gotten nothing but positive feedback, even if only a few people have taken advantage of the services.
Denver has already been required to provide Spanish ballot materials under federal law, so the shift won’t be as drastic for the state’s largest city, either. The Denver clerk and recorder’s public information officer Alton Dillard said Denver even provided bilingual election materials prior to the federal mandate and that this has been “front of mind for years.”
Denver also has had a permanent Spanish language advisory board called Acceso to support the city’s Spanish-speaking voters since 2010, and prior to this it had some sort of ad hoc advisory board starting as early as 2002, Dillard said.
“They serve as our eyes and ears in the Spanish-speaking community, and they also work with us to create a glossary of Spanish election terms, because there are different types of Spanish spoken in different parts of the country,” Dillard said.
Starting in 2019, Dillard said Denver used census data to provide sample ballots in five languages other than English and Spanish in anticipation of potentially meeting the federal threshold in delayed 2020 census data. Those languages are Amharic, Arabic, Russian, Somalian and Vietnamese.
While Denver also had its own translation hotline, going forward it will rely on the state’s, while Arapahoe County opted to keep its hotline year-round for additional services in the clerk’s office.
First election under law
The secretary of state’s office said it has kept in contact with the 20 qualifying counties throughout the summer and will provide more specific signage and instructions once ballots go out on Oct. 17 and the state hotline kicks off.
In Weld County, Clerk Carly Koppes said her office has been working with Latino coalition groups in Greeley as well as other community members to determine the best dialect of Spanish the county should use for its ballots. One of the difficulties is figuring out the best way to translate legalese terms included in ballot questions, Koppes said, since they are not plain language.
Weld County also already had a relationship with a translation service, so for practice, Koppes said her office asked the translators to prepare a Spanish version of the 2020 ballot so they could see how smoothly the process would go. Once her office had back the Spanish translation, she asked Spanish speakers on her staff to review it and share their thoughts.
Before getting ready to finalize Weld County’s ballots, though, Koppes said her office brought in more community members, because the dialect the county chose doesn’t include a specific word for “issue” or “town.” Koppes said she wants to keep the language as consistent as possible, so hearing thoughts from a variety of Weld County communities on what would work best helped in preparing for the first year.
“We know we’re probably going to get some criticism and that’s to be expected, but we wanted to try and get it as close to accurate as we can with translation into a different language when there are so many dialects and there isn’t a straight word for word translation,” Koppes said.
Koppes said she also asked that organizations submitting ballot questions provide a translation that her team will then review with the translation service.
Prior to the new law, Koppes said Weld County tried to make sure a Spanish speaker was present at its in-person voting centers to help anyone who might have needed it, on top of their relationship with a translation service based in Boulder.
The secretary of state’s office said the translators working for the state hotline will focus solely on ballot language and will refrain from offering commentary or expanding upon what the language means. The hotline will likely be available while voter service and polling centers are open. When someone calls the hotline for translation assistance, it will become a three-way call between the voter, the translator, and a polling employee to read the ballot language.
“This law will be yet another tool to foster a culture of participation by removing barriers to the ballot box for eligible voters,” Dillard said. “We see this law as the basis of what election officials should be providing, and whenever possible, we always try to go above and beyond for our voters here in Denver.”
Importance to Democarcy
In a representative democracy like the United States, citizens have the right to vote for their elected officials, but if they don’t understand the language they are voting in, they’re not given the same, fair opportunity to do so.
“If it’s going to be a representative democracy, you do want it to reflect your country, your city, your county, and have everyone have unfettered access to that if they are an eligible voter,” Dillard said.
One of the most crucial aspects of the new law is to make sure everyone has the best chance at understanding what is being asked of them on the ballot. Perl and Koppes both emphasized that it’s difficult for most people to understand what a ballot question is asking in their first language, let alone their second or third.
“Being able to have more materials in a language you are more familiar with just helps you be a better-informed voter, which makes people more confident voters and makes them more likely to vote, from my perspective, in all of the elections,” Perl said, “Because we don’t want people to only vote when the president is on the ballot. We want them to vote last year when it was school board and city council. We want them to vote all the time, and that has to do with being very confident in knowing what the issues are … and how you want to vote on those issues.”
Perl and Koppes both emphasized that voting is the primary way citizens can contribute to their government. Koppes said it’s the key opportunity for someone not interested in running for office to have a voice.
“The ballot, to me, is the biggest equalizer that we have as U.S. citizens,” Koppes said. “It is how we interact with our living and breathing government. You have the opportunity to have a voice, and your ballot, it doesn’t know or care if you got $2 million in the bank or you got two cents in the bank.”