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County Council Expands Access to Voting


Providing voting materials in Korean and Spanish by the 2016 general election


Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Federal Voting Rights Act into law, the Metropolitan King County Council today gave its unanimous approval to broadening the historic law’s standards in King County by requiring voting materials be translated into additional languages, starting with Spanish and Korean.

“The foundation of our democracy is the right to vote – today we strengthened our democracy by ensuring more King County citizens have the ability to access that right,” said Councilmember Rod Dembowski, the author of the ordinance. “Today’s significant step will increase voter participation, access, and create more informed voters. As we worked towards today’s achievement, I was honored to have the help, support, and expertise of so many community leaders that represent the myriad of cultures that will now have improved access to voting materials.”

“In America, access to the ballot box is vital in getting your voice heard,” said Councilmember Larry Gossett. “The language you speak and read should not block you from the ballot box. This legislation removes a crucial barrier to exercising a basic right of living in a democracy.”

King County is one of the fastest growing regions in the country, with a rapidly growing population of individuals who speak a language other than English. According to the county demographer, one quarter of King County residents speak a language other than English at home, and close to half of them report that no one in their households speak English well or at all.

The Voting Rights Act requires that jurisdictions provide language assistance to voters if more than 10,000 members or 5 percent of the voting age citizens are members of a single-language minority group who do not “speak or understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process.” For King County, this standard has required election materials be provided in only two additional languages other than English — Chinese (since 2002) and Vietnamese (since 2010).

The adopted ordinance expands access to voting by broadening the standard set in Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act to include Korean and Spanish, currently the two largest groups of limited-English-proficient (LEP) King County residents, by the 2016 general election. Other languages may be added starting in 2017.

“I and King County Election staff are looking forward to a partnership with Councilmember Dembowski and his staff to provide translation of election materials for Korean and Spanish speaking voters,” said Sherril Huff, Director of King County Elections. “I anticipate this partnership will be a critical step in supporting all King County Communities.”

In addition to ensuring that growing populations of individuals who speak a language other than English are represented as demographics continue to change, the new law also requires that by January 2017 (and then every 5 years), King County Elections report to Council on languages meeting the threshold of 10,000 or more LEP King County residents. Languages meeting the threshold will then be included as translation options.

The ordinance also makes voting registration materials available at County offices that provide services to the public.

Quotes from regional community leaders regarding King County’s achievement:

“The Korean American Coalition of Washington enthusiastically applauds the passing of the Ordinance and we give our thanks to Councilmember Rod Dembowski and the King County Council - this new Ordinance will greatly help members of the Korean community become informed and engaged, and will encourage greater participation in the democratic process by Korean Americans in King County,” said Thomas Lee President of the Korean American Coalition of Washington.

“There are few things we hold more dearly in the United States than the value of Democracy,” Peter Bloch Garcia, Executive Director of Progreso: Latino Progress Alliance. “As our country and our own King County have changed demographically over the last thirty years, the time has come to ensure that we create systems that include as many voters as possible, and this ordinance is a great step in the right direction.”

“Today there are still many Americans that use minority languages daily and are limited in their English proficiency,” said Bruce Huang of the King County Citizens' Elections Oversight Committee. “For our representative democracy we need informed and engaged voters. One way of achieving that goal is to lower barriers to our electoral process by providing voting materials in the language they best understand.”

“The Municipal League of King County believes that our society thrives when all the voices in our community are heard,” Ben Stafford, Municipal League of King County Board Member. “We commend the Council for taking this important step toward ensuring that all King County citizens can participate easily and fully in the democratic process.”

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