House Advances Bill Making English Default Language for Mail-In Ballots in Harris County

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Last week the House Committee on Elections heard HB 986 by Representative Gary Elkins, which would change the way mail-in ballots are sent to registered voters in Harris County.

Currently, Harris County prints and mails out ballots in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese.  According to Stan Stanart, the Harris County Clerk, the county mailed out about 80,000 ballots last election.

The Voting Rights Act requires that counties make available a ballot (mail-in or otherwise) in that language if that language speaking population exceeds 10,000 people or 5% percent of the total population. The bill is only applicable to counties that are required to provide ballots in three or more languages (so effectively only Harris County).

When the mail-in ballot is requested, the bill would provide that the voter must also select the language to choose, and if the voter requested nothing then the ballot is sent only in English. Currently the ballot sent to voters has all four languages provided.

Of course the larger concern is disenfranchising non-English speaking voters in a county with already low turnout.  State Representative Gene Wu brought up his concern in committee, noting that a language requirement is not a requirement for citizenship in citizens over 50, and even before that age it is a very basic requirement, and not at all complex language requirement which is needed to vote.

Sondra Haltom with Empower The Vote Texas made this statement regarding the bill:

“I understand Harris County's dilemma, however this bill definitely raises concern about non-English speaking voters being penalized if they forget to check the language option box, whereas English speakers would automatically receive a ballot in the language of their choice. I am hopeful that Representative Elkins will be receptive to making changes to the bill to address the concerns raised in today's committee hearing.” – Sondra Haltom with Empower The Vote Texas

There was some discussion in committee about making a requested language of a ballot a permanent request, and not one that the voter must continually be burdened with the request with each ballot.

Either way if this bill passes into law the bill would be subject to review by the Department of Justice to ensure that it is not a violation of the Voting Rights Act, and does not disenfranchise minority voters.

The bill passed the committee with a 4-2 vote.  

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