Iowa attorney general appeals decision allowing non-English voting materials

By: - August 30, 2023 3:12 pm

Attorney General Brenna Bird announced she is appealing a district court ruling that would allow election officials to release voting materials in languages other than English. (Photo by Kate Kealey/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird is appealing a judge’s decision that cleared the way for election officials to offer non-English voting materials to the public.

“We are appealing the district court’s decision against the Secretary of State’s Office to protect election integrity and defend state law,” Bird said Wednesday in a written statement. “The Iowa English Language Reaffirmation Act is clear: All official documents are to be written in English — including voter registration forms. We look forward to arguing our case in court to uphold the act and secure the integrity of our elections.”

Under the district court’s June 29 ruling, Iowa counties are allowed, at their discretion, to provide citizens with non-English ballots, voter-registration forms and absentee ballot applications. The decision dissolved a 15-year-old injunction that had previously blocked the practice.

The court’s ruling grew out of a lawsuit 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.”

LULAC argued, and a district court judge agreed, that voting is a constitutional right.

Joe Henry, political director of LULAC of Iowa, told the Iowa Capital Dispatch on Wednesday that LULAC is prepared to contest the state’s appeal.

“We are determined to fight this,” he said. “People have a constitutional right to vote, and language should not be a barrier to voting.”

He noted that the Iowa Department of Transportation provides non-English instructional materials to people applying for a driver’s license, with the DOT website currently offering downloadable, Iowa-specific driver manuals in 23 different languages.

“So it’s OK to get informational materials that way to learn how to drive in Iowa, but it’s somehow not OK when it comes to voting,” Henry said.

The dispute over English-only voting materials dates back to 2003, when 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 pointed out that the parties in the case had not addressed a central provision of the law that specifically allows 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 previously issued injunction “prevents the dissemination of official voter registration forms for this state in languages other than English.”

LULAC then 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.

In June, 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.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.