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Spanish-speaking voters are no longer hindered by law that prohibited the number of times a person could assist them. Photo: Ralph Freso/Getty Images.

Arkansas state law targeting Spanish speakers overturned

The 2009 law limited the number of persons able to assist a Spanish-speaking voter at the polls.

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An Arkansas Federal District court struck down a 2009 state law last week that prohibited the number of times a person is able to provide assistance to Spanish-speaking constituents. The ruling follows a lawsuit filed by a Latino and immigrant-centered advocacy group. 

The suit, filed by Arkansas United and Mexican American Legal and Education Fund (MALDEF), argued that the state’s action violated federal law. Section 208 establishes that voters can receive assistance from a person of their choosing, and does not specify the number of times an individual may seek assistance.

The 24-page document named John Thurston, Arkansas Sec. of State, who also serves as chairperson of the Arkansas State Board of Election Commissioners. Also named were members of the overall board.

“The voter-assistance restrictions in the Arkansas Election Code particularly burden limited English proficient voters, who often rely on help from others to read and cast English-language ballots, by limiting the number of available assistors,” the suit read. 

Nationwide, Latinos were instrumental in election outcomes, with high turnout on ballots for all roles of public office. Studies observed a 30% increase in Latino voters from the 2016 election, with a total of 16 million votes cast. In battleground states, tight margins ruled the ballot with overall support for Biden. 

However, communities face obstacles that impair their ability to cast a vote correctly, namely, the ability to read and interpret the ballot. As such, election clerks and staff are critical to ensuring all electors make their mark equally. The 2009 Arkansas law hindered this effort.

Additionally, Arkansas is not a jurisdiction where voting materials are provided or required by federal law. Additional burdens imposed not only pose limits, but risk criminal prosecution, according to the lawsuit, now settled. 

MALDEF’s victory sets an important precedent in a hostile voting environment.

States across the country grapple with heightened restrictions around voting, following the contentious 2020 elections. In Arizona, a total of three bills target transient voters and naturalized citizens who don’t meet aleatory requirements.

One of the proposed pieces of legislation, which will become law in September, could result in a canceled voter registration if county officials find that an elector is registered in more than one county. The law does not stipulate if said voters would be notified, casting doubt over the state’s operational approach. 

It also removes legally registered voters from early ballot casting or vote-by-mail if a county recorder received “credible information,” but does not define circumstances applicable to those cancellations. 

In Wisconsin, the state’s highest court struck down the use of drop-off ballot boxes, severely limiting a disabled person’s ability to cast a ballot. This matter was compounded by the fact that only authorized personnel may assist at the voting sites. 

MALDEF’s win signals a small victory amid an onslaught of new Republican-led legislation, which also has ripple effects on the judicial system. 

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