Voting obstacles remain for Utahns who don’t speak much English

One in seven Utahns speak a language other than English in the home and might require language assistance when voting. Technology and translations can assist them with the voting process.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A voting sign at the West Valley City Hall, on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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For Utahns who primarily speak a language other than English, the electoral process can be tough to navigate, with assistance concentrated in Salt Lake City. But there are options citizens around the state can take advantage of to participate in democracy.

One in seven Utahns speak another language at home, according to 2019 American Community Survey data. Most of those households speak Spanish. This figure is especially high in Salt Lake and Utah counties. While many of those people are bilingual, 5% of Utahns have limited proficiency in English, including 7% of Salt Lake County’s more than a million residents.

But as Utah’s immigrant population grows, voting resources available in other languages remain limited. Only Salt Lake County offers official voting materials in both English and Spanish, though other municipalities will often accept these materials and make efforts to assist with language needs.

“I certainly know many people in those situations,” said Eulogio Alejandre, an educator and Latino civic engagement nonprofit leader in Ogden. “My mom and dad. They rely on us, their children, for direction. There are many others who might struggle finding support and direction.”

Since it meets a threshold of non-English speakers, Salt Lake County is required by federal law to accommodate these voters while other counties in Utah are not, according to the office of Sherrie Swenton, the Salt Lake County Clerk. The area is covered under the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in American elections. It started protecting linguistic rights in 1975 when judges declared that holding the electoral process entirely in English excluded voters who speak other languages.

For an immigrant to become a naturalized citizen of the United States, he or she does need to pass a civics test and a limited English proficiency exam, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. There are limited exemptions for older long-term residents and some applicants with disabilities.

Still, citizens with limited English might need help navigating the electoral process. Access in one’s first language can bolster involvement in the process, according to a 2016 study by a team of political scientists from Emory and Northwestern Universities.

VOTERISE, a Utah-based nonprofit dedicated to signing up voters and getting them to turn out, has gotten creative with signing up voters most comfortable in other languages.

“A large part of our mission is to help register Hispanic and Latinx voters,” said Hope Zitting-Goeckeritz, the foundation’s executive director. “We target precincts that have less than average turnout rates – often as low as 15%.”

VOTERISE seeks to be language inclusive for every step of the voting process. They provide nonpartisan voter guides in both English and Spanish, have bilingual staff to answer any questions clients may have and even offer their own multilingual registration services.

And when they run registration drives across the state, they offer the Salt Lake County registration form in Spanish. Administrators generally accept it.

Josh Daniels, the Utah County clerk/auditor who manages administrative processes like elections, said that even though they aren’t required to offer forms in Spanish, their office tries to honor outliers and exceptional cases that come their way. They also aim to have assistance available at the polls on Election Day.

“Sometimes governments will have arcane, bureaucratic rules, but we don’t do that,” Daniels said. “If you register to vote on another form, we’ll accept it. If there’s missing information, we’ll reach out and contact you.”

Daniels insisted that most voter registrations happen at the DMV when drivers get their licenses, especially in places that rely heavily on cars.

Representatives from the Summit and Weber County Clerk offices are also happy to process different types of registrations. In both counties, Spanish speakers can register through the Governor’s Voter Registration Website, which has the option to be translated in Spanish. They also accept the existing forms in Spanish from Salt Lake County, said Eve Furse, Summit County Clerk and Ryan Cowley, elections director for Weber County, which has a vibrant Latino community.

In Weber County, the clerk’s office works with the local university to help people with language barriers on Election Day.

Utah County, which is quickly growing and getting a bit more diverse, is on track to someday meet the requirements for multilingual voting materials.

“There’s a logistical challenge,” said Daniels. “The threshold helps to give a mark of a good time when it makes sense to translate into other languages. We’ve researched when we might hit that threshold and thought about how we can better serve audiences of different languages between now and then.”

Professionals in the field say that the most promising solution lies in technology.

Online translation services allow for easier translation into more languages for free, requiring less human help on hand. They can be implemented at all steps of the process -- registration, voter education on issues and even at the ballot box. In Utah County, officials are introducing machines programmed to offer language support, according to Daniels.

VOTERISE takes advantage of an online registration system offered through Rock the Vote, a national organization dedicated to increasing civic participation. It allows voters to quickly register in 13 languages, including Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese. All they have to do is answer basic questions, print out a form, sign it and mail it in.

“The biggest thing is trying to make things more accessible with technology, but also remembering those that might not have access to technology,” said Zitting-Goeckeritz of VOTERISE, especially referring to Utah’s Navajo nation, where tech adoption can be especially low.

“As we grow more inclined to technology, we want to make sure we don’t leave anybody behind,” she said.