Coverage from the Chron:
In contrast to the discourse over the voter ID law, it’s not clear there are many political stakes over the law [Judge Robert] Pitman tossed out Friday.
There are enough Hispanic and Latino voters in every county in Texas to mandate Spanish-language assistance at polls across the state, so Friday’s ruling does not apply to that segment of the population.
Instead, the interpreter case largely hones in on Asian Americans and other minorities in Texas, who in the vast majority of counties do not comprise enough of the population to require language-assistance at the polls, and thus often rely on interpreters. Many times, these voters are elderly and grew up speaking another language, [Jerry Vattamala, director of the Democracy Program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and one of the attorneys on the case] said, and rely on children, sometimes even minors, to be their interpreters and helpers at the polls.
Vattamala said that in Texas, Asian Americans vote equally for both Republicans and Democrats.
Pitman’s ruling Friday may be particularly significant in the Houston area, which has a large Asian population. While he did not have specific numbers, testimony in the case indicated that several voters in the Houston area have not been allowed to bring interpreters into the polls.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon responding to questions about the case and its impact on Harris County, a spokesman for county clerk Stan Stanart’s office said Stanart is “in favor of following the law. He has asked that we follow the law as mandated by the court and required by the Secretary of State.”
The statement indicates that voters will now be able to use “interpreters of their choosing” barring limitations prescribed by other laws that prohibit a voter’s employer or labor union representative to be their interpreter.
The spokesman, Hector DeLeon, said in the statement that the county makes ballots and elections materials available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese.
“We also have advisory groups for Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese that engage the leadership in those communities to help educate the registered voters about the election process,” DeLeon said. “These groups meet to maintain close contact to engage the community, to find bilingual poll workers and to educate the public during an election cycle.”
See here and here for the background. Vattamala’s statement about how Asian-Americans vote in Texas is one for which I’d be very curious to see some detailed polling data, which unfortunately I rather doubt exists. We know that nationally in 2012, Asian-Americans voted for President Obama at a higher rate than Latinos did, something like 78-21 in the President’s favor. That doesn’t mean it was the same here – “Asian-American” is a very wide designation, covering many diverse nationalities, and as Latinos in Texas vote Republican at a higher rate than their counterparts elsewhere, it’s certainly possible the same holds true for Asian-Americans. I don’t know, and with all due respect I’m not sure that Jerry Vattamala has access to anything more than a deeper well of anecdotal data. I’m just saying I’d love to see some real data, with sufficient samples of varying nationalities to be able to draw good conclusions.
Back to the decision itself, the Texas Election Law Blog gives us some historical context on this:
The Texas Election Code is a mess, as I’ve pointed out before. Our election laws are a cruel jumble born of mean-spirited political expediency, sloth, torpor, and ignorance. One particular piece of work within this ramshackle edifice of vote suppression and general discouragement of the democratic process is Section 61.033 of the Election Code, which states that in order to serve as an interpreter for a voter who requires language assistance, “a person must be a registered voter of the county in which the voter needing the interpreter resides.”
The law, such as it is, has a long pedigree stretching back to 1918, (Act of March 23, 1918, 35th Leg., 4th C.S. Ch. 30 (H.B. 104), although a requirement that election officials could only communicate via English in the polling place was added by the Act of March 13, 1919, 36th Leg. Ch. 55 (S.B. 244), 1919 Tex. Gen. Laws p. 94), The 1919 law reflected a longstanding nativist fear (pumped up by anti-immigration sentiment after World War One) that some language other than English might intrude into the polling place; that fear is still reflected in Section 61.031(a) of the Election Code, which more-or-less tracks the xenophobia of the old 1919 law.
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the state law was softened to permit language assistance at the same time that multilingual ballots were provided.
But … while Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act provides that voters should be able to make use of language assistance of their own choosing, the state law still exhibits a weird reluctance to help voters out by imposing that pesky “have to be registered to vote in the same county as the voter” requirement on interpreters.
That restriction found in the state law was never defensible (given that it directly contradicts federal law), but it’s interesting that it took so long for a group of plaintiffs to find a test case to knock it down.
Here’s a copy of the ruling, from that post. The key here is that the original plaintiff who needed the assistance, Mallika Das, was voting in Williamson County, while her son/interpreter, Saurabh Das, was registered in Travis County. When he told the election officials that, he was not allowed to act as interpreter for his mother. Everything else followed from there.
Anyway, it is unclear at this time if the state will appeal Judge Pitman’s ruling, so barring any further action people who need some language help at the ballot box can bring an interpreter of their choosing with them. Which is how it should have been all along.