An Iowa judge has blocked the state from attempting to prevent election officials from offering written voting materials to the public in languages other than English. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
An Iowa judge has blocked the state from attempting to prevent election officials from offering non-English voting materials to the public.
Under the ruling, Iowa counties will again be allowed to provide citizens with non-English ballots, voter-registration forms, and absentee ballot applications. The decision dissolves a 15-year-old injunction that blocked the practice.
The ruling was handed down in a lawsuit that was filed on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa (LULAC). The lawsuit challenged the state’s application of the English Language Reaffirmation Act to election materials. The act, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2002, requires that all political documents from the state “shall be in the English language” unless the materials are deemed “necessary to secure the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.”
In 20o3, the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office began to make non-English voter registration forms freely available online. Steve King, then a conservative Republican member of Iowa’s congressional delegation, filed a lawsuit, arguing the practice violated the state’s English Language Reaffirmation Act. A district court judge agreed and issued an injunction in 2008 that barred the secretary of state from providing voter registration forms in any language other than English.
But in doing so, the court noted that the parties in the case had not addressed a central provision of the law specifically allowing the use of “any language” for documents that are necessary to secure rights guaranteed by the Constitution. “This exception may justify the use of non-English voter registration forms,” the court noted.
In the wake of that ruling, the secretary of state and the Iowa Voter Registration Commission stopped providing voting materials in languages other than English. LULAC of Iowa objected, arguing the action was damaging to its efforts to mobilize Latino voters. In June 2021, the organization submitted a petition to the secretary of state’s office asking for a declaratory order regarding the dissemination and use of voting materials that were translated into Spanish.
In September 2021, the secretary of state’s office issued a one-sentence statement that said the injunction “prevents the dissemination of official voter registration forms for this state in languages other than English.”
LULAC sued Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, the Voter Registration Commission and four county auditors, asking the court to dissolve the injunction and issue a declaratory order stating that voting materials are exempt from the Iowa English Language Affirmation Act.
The defendants argued that in 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld English-language literacy tests used by some states to limit voting — but they did not address the fact that six years later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned the use of any “test or device” to deny individuals the right to vote, including any requirement that a potential voter “demonstrate the ability to read, write, understand, or interpret any matter.” That provision of the Voting Rights Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and struck down state-imposed literacy tests.
On Thursday, Polk County District Court Judge Scott D. Rosenberg cited the Voting Rights Act while ruling in LULAC’s favor, dissolving the injunction and stating that voting materials were exempt from the restrictions imposed by Iowa’s English Language Reaffirmation Act.
Rejecting the state’s arguments, Rosenberg said it “strains credibility” to assert that providing voting materials in another language would not be required by, or necessary to secure rights guaranteed by, the Constitution.
“One would be hard-pressed to find a right that has been more frequently and unwaveringly praised in this nation than the right to vote,” Rosenberg wrote. “One’s ability to participate in the shared experience of democracy is dependent on effective communication, whether it be amongst voters or between the electorate and the state. Iowa itself has a long history of immigrants, including ones that do not speak English proficiently. In fact, the Constitutional Convention of the State of Iowa in 1857 contemplated such an issue given the large German population in the state at the time. The convention agreed to commission the translation of the Iowa Constitution into German and the printing of 3,000 copies for distribution among the state’s German immigrants.”
Joe Henry, political director of LULAC of Iowa, told the Iowa Capital Dispatch he’s pleased with the ruling.
“Voting is constitutional right and that was clear even back in 2008 when the injunction was issued,” he said. “Language should not be a barrier to the constitutional right to vote, and we really appreciate this ruling. This issue has held us hostage for over a decade — and it’s troubling that the injunction was not fought back in 2008 by the secretary of state. That’s one thing that really bothered us. It’s unfortunate that it took so long for us to get this issue back in front of a judge again.”
A spokesperson for the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office said that while no immediate action is required by the court’s ruling, “we are in contact with county auditors about impacts and next steps. The Office of Iowa Secretary of State is working with legal counsel and the Office of the Attorney General of Iowa on this matter and is encouraging county auditors to consult with their county attorneys before taking any action.”
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