Almost three years after Mallika Das, a naturalized citizen who spoke Bengali, was unable to vote properly because she was not proficient in English, Texas lawmakers are considering a change to an obscure provision of Texas election law regarding language interpreters.
Members of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday took up Senate Bill 148 by Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston, which would repeal a section of the state’s election code that requires interpreters to be registered voters in the same county in which they are providing help.
The measure will ensure that voters are able “to meaningfully and effectively exercise their vote,” Garcia told the committee. “This ensures that voters have the capacity to navigate polling stations, communicate with election officers and understand how to fill out required forms and answer questions directed at them by any election officer.”
Garcia’s proposal comes amid an ongoing legal battle over the state’s interpreter provision in a lawsuit brought by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund on behalf of Das, who has since died, and the Greater Houston chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans.
Because she had found it difficult to vote in the past, Das in 2014 brought her son, Saurabh, to help her cast her vote at a Williamson County polling place. But when her son told poll workers he was there to interpret the English ballot for his mother, they ran into the state’s interpreter requirements. Saurabh could not serve as an interpreter for his mother because he was registered to vote in neighboring Travis County.
Das proceeded to vote without her son’s assistance but was unable to “vote properly” for all of the electoral measures because she could not “sufficiently comprehend the ballot,” according to court filings.
The interpreter requirement has been on hold since before the November election when a federal district judge ruled that Texas could not enforce the provision because it violates the federal Voting Rights Act. That law requires that any voter who requires assistance because of visual impairments, disabilities or literacy skills be allowed to obtain help in casting a ballot by the person of their choice, as long as it’s not their employer or a union leader.
Pointing to that ruling, Garcia told the committee on Monday that by repealing the entire section related to interpreters, the state election code would “conform to federal law.”
Garcia's proposal would also simplify convoluted provisions of Texas election law regarding language assistance during elections.
One provision of the state election code allows for “assistors.” It says voters can receive help reading or marking a ballot and states that assistance “occurs while the person is in the presence of the voter’s ballot.”
Yet a separate provision allows voters to select an “interpreter” to help them communicate with an election officer and “accompany the voter to the voting station for the purpose of translating the ballot to the voter." The interpreter, unlike an assistor, must be registered to vote in the same county.
In Das’ case, had her son simply told poll workers he was “assisting” his mother — and not that the assistance involved interpreting the ballot for her — he would have been able to go into the voting booth with her.
Garcia’s proposal would essentially consolidate all forms of assistance and remove any requirements related to voter registration.
While the measure has picked up support from the Texas Association of Election Administrators, representatives with the Harris County Clerk’s Office, including Ed Johnson, testified against Garcia’s proposal.
“In Harris County, we think the role of an interpreter is different to the role of an assistant,” Johnson said, adding that the issue was a currently a “moot point” because the law has been put on hold and the courts are “still working through that process.”
Texas has appealed the federal district judge’s decision in Das’ case to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and oral arguments have been set for early June.
While the state has argued in court filings that it should not be part of the lawsuit because it involves a “local dispute,” attorneys with the Texas Attorney General’s Office have defended the interpreter provision as a lawful measure that offers “additional assistance to voters beyond the minimum requirements” of the federal Voting Rights Act.
But proponents of simplifying state election law point to the Das case as proof that the law did not provide additional assistance but simply kept a U.S. citizen from properly casting a vote.
The requirement could affect thousands of Texas voters. Millions of Texas households speak languages other than English. Most of them speak Spanish, and election administrators in Texas are already required to provide electoral materials in Spanish.
But 25.7 percent of Texas households that speak languages originating in Asia or the Pacific Islands are considered limited English-speaking households, according to census estimates.
Very few Texas counties are required to provide assistance in languages other than Spanish. Harris County is under the most requirements, with election administrators there required to provide assistance to Spanish-, Chinese- and Vietnamese-speaking voters.
Because of its growing Asian population, the federal government recently required Tarrant County to begin providing election materials in Vietnamese. Along with assistance in Spanish, El Paso and Maverick counties must also provide language assistance for some American Indian voters.
Despite testimony from Harris County representatives, Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman said during the hearing that it would be “wrong” for the committee to zero in on an area of the state with a “richness of language” in considering the proposal.
"This law would apply to the smaller counties as well that may not have an interpreter for some of the languages," Huffman said.
Garcia’s bill was left pending in committee. A House bill by state Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, that was identical to Garcia’s original legislation was also set to be heard in the House Elections Committee on Monday but was withdrawn from the committee’s agenda.