Skip Navigation

Lawsuit demands York County do more to help Spanish-speaking voters

  • Gabriela Martínez
In this Feb. 26, 2020 file photo, using both the English and Spanish language, a sign points potential voters to an official polling location during early voting in Dallas.  Getting enough people to staff polling places amid the coronavirus pandemic is a challenge in many states. The virus’ disproportionate impact on Latinos has made the task of recruiting Spanish-speakers even more difficult.

 LM Otero / AP Photo

In this Feb. 26, 2020 file photo, using both the English and Spanish language, a sign points potential voters to an official polling location during early voting in Dallas. Getting enough people to staff polling places amid the coronavirus pandemic is a challenge in many states. The virus’ disproportionate impact on Latinos has made the task of recruiting Spanish-speakers even more difficult.

A Latino advocacy group is suing the York County Board of elections, claiming it fails to ensure required language access for Spanish-speaking voters — Puerto Ricans in particular — at polling places.

The lawsuit, filed by LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Dechert LLP on behalf of CASA and Puerto Rican voters in York County, alleges the county is not complying with Section 4(e) of the federal Voting Rights Act, which specifically protects Puerto Rican voters who were educated in schools where the primary language was Spanish. 

That section of the Voting Rights Act states that no person who studied in a public or private school accredited by any U.S. state or territory, in which the predominant classroom language was other than English, “shall be denied the right to vote in any Federal, State, or local election because of his inability to read, write, understand, or interpret any matter in the English language.”

Another provision of the Voting Rights Act – Section 203 – requires some counties to have language assistance if more than 10,000 residents who are of voting age have low literacy skills or cannot speak English well. York County is not one of them. 

Berks, Lehigh and Philadelphia counties are required to provide ballots in Spanish, as well as translation assistance. Philadelphia county is also required to provide voting assistance in Chinese.

But the section of the law cited in the lawsuit – Section 4(e) – applies nationwide.

“This law seeks to protect and state the fact that Puerto Ricans who are educated in Puerto Rico are receiving instruction in Spanish, and their predominant language is Spanish, and that doesn’t make them any less entitled to the right to vote or any less American,” said Rayza Goldsmith, associate counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

Goldsmith said the law entitles Puerto Rican voters whose main language is Spanish to have the right to access a Spanish-language ballot and instructions and Spanish-language assistance at the polls.

Greg Monskie, chief clerk to the Board of Commissioners, said the county cannot comment on pending litigation and that responsive legal filing “will speak for themselves.”

“York County has engaged in discussions with CASA and LatinoJustice over the last several months in an effort to understand their concerns about our election process, “ Monskie wrote in a statement last week.

All of York City’s 17 precincts have bilingual sample ballots, as does one of the eight precincts in Springettsbury Township. The remaining 153 York County precincts have English-only sample ballots.

CASA sent out a survey to gauge voter experience among Latinos in York County before May’s primary. From that survey, CASA identified a group of Puerto Rican voters who went to primarily Spanish-language schools in Puerto Rico. After the primary, CASA sent out another survey that helped them identify some registered Puerto Rican voters who did not vote.

These voters told CASA they felt uncomfortable voting in Spanish or did not understand how to go through the process in English. Some said they were not able to find poll workers who could provide Spanish-language assistance.

“The people who did get help got assistance from people from our organization who happened to be there working as translators,” said María del Carmen Gutiérrez, CASA’s director of membership.

Gutiérrez said the testimonies from the voters they surveyed, many of whom are CASA members, matched her own experiences as a voter. After Gutiérrez’s mail-in ballot for the primary was rejected because of an envelope mistake, she went to her polling place to vote in person. When she requested a ballot in Spanish, the poll workers said there were only English-language ballots. Gutierrez said the poll workers asked her to prove her citizenship. 

“They told me that the process was in English, and that if I did not know English that I couldn’t vote,” Gutiérrez said. 

Gutiérrez, who has lived in the continental United States for three years, said she feels more at ease voting in Spanish. Since she and the poll workers were having a hard time understanding each other, she had asked if someone who spoke Spanish could help her, but there was no one. Eventually, Gutiérrez was able to cast her vote.

Before filing a complaint, CASA had sent a letter on Sept. 14 asking the county to print provisional and general ballots in both Spanish and English. 

“CASA came to us with these experiences, and also with a history of trying to reach out to your county but not really making a lot of progress on getting any reassurances that the county would take action to try to ensure that these voters would be able to access the materials and translation services that they are entitled to under the law, and so at that point, we got involved with this work,” Goldsmith said.

Juan Ortiz, resident of York County, studied in the United States until the middle of 5th grade and then moved back to Puerto Rico, where he went to school until his first year of college. Eventually, Ortiz moved back to York County, and has lived there for decades. But he did not vote in a U.S. general election until 2020. When he went to the polling place, he could not find anyone to orient him in Spanish.

Ortiz was able to vote with the English skills that he has. But, he said,  “that’s not the point.”

“I want to make sure that people who have difficulties understanding what they have to do in English can have someone to interpret in Spanish because that is the law,” Ortiz said.

The complaint includes testimony from other Puerto Rican CASA members. 

One said she needed the assistance of an interpreter in the 2016 election, but no one was available to help her. She tried to vote with the help of her husband but he was not allowed into the voting station with her. The lawsuit says “she has not voted since then, in part because she was unaware of and confused about certain voting procedures, like the availability of absentee ballots.”

Another Puerto Rican voter mentioned in the lawsuit came to the United States after Hurricane Maria and moved to York County several months ago. She wants to vote in November. Since  she does not understand English well, and cannot read in English, she was not aware of how to register to vote.

Goldsmith said this lawsuit seeks to make things better in time for the Nov. 8 General Election. However, the suit also specifies long-term actions to ensure that Spanish speakers have reliable access for years to come.

Some of the short-term actions CASA is demanding include providing bilingual sample ballots in all precincts and training poll workers on language access requirements.

“One of the things we heard from CASA’s members was that a lot of people were being told information that is either misleading or untrue about what voters rights are to access materials in Spanish, or to access translation assistance in Spanish,” Goldsmith said.

Section 4(e) was cited in another  2003 case -– United States v. Berks County. The federal government had sued Berks county election officials for a pattern of unequal treatment against Spanish-speaking voters, many of whom were Puerto Ricans. These actions included hostile treatment, lack of bilingual poll workers and voting materials. The judge in this case ordered the county to provide in English and Spanish all written election-related materials and assign bilingual poll workers during the busiest voting times on election day. 

In another 1974 Philadelphia case, Arroyo v. Tucker,  the judge also sided with the plaintiffs citing the same section  of the Voting Rights Act, and concluded: “the ‘right to vote’ means more than the mechanics of marking a ballot or pulling a lever. Here, plaintiffs cannot cast an ‘informed’ or ‘effective’ vote without demonstrating an ability to comprehend the registration and election forms and the ballot itself. The English-only election materials therefore constitute a device ‘conditioning the right to vote’ of plaintiffs on their ability to ‘read, write, understand, or interpret any matter in the English language.’”


Gabriela Martínez is part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Up Next
Regional & State News

Mandatory Reporting Was Supposed to Stop Severe Child Abuse. It Punishes Poor Families Instead.