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Latino civil rights group sues Iowa election officials over 'English-only' law

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March

About 50 people attended the Muscatine LULAC and Muscatine League of Women Voters' March to the Polls in October 2020. 

Attorneys for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging Iowa's "English-Only Law."

The suit, filed against Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, the Iowa Voter Registration Commission and county auditors in Buena Vista, Calhoun, Jefferson and Montgomery counties, challenges election officials' failure to provide non-English election materials, specifically Spanish language materials, to voters with limited English proficiency.

Paul Pate

Pate

A 2002 state law mandates all official political documents from the state be written in English, with the exception of voting materials in two counties. Only Buena Vista and Tama counties are allowed to translate election materials, due to their high populations of Hispanic and Indigenous Peoples, respectfully.

"(B)ut Spanish speakers outside Buena Vista County — and other language minorities with limited English-language proficiency — face unnecessary barriers to voting due to an erroneous interpretation and implementation of the English-Only Law," according to the lawsuit filed by Washington, D.C.-based election law firm Elias Law Group and Des Moines law firm McCormally & Cosgrove.

LULAC claims the Iowa law disenfranchises voters and violates provisions in federal law and both the U.S. and Iowa constitutions protecting the right to vote.

The Iowa Secretary of State's Office, however, is still under a 2008 injunction stemming from a court case involving former Republican Iowa U.S. Rep. Steve King, which prevents the dissemination of official voter registration forms in languages other than English.

Pate cited the injunction in response to a petition by LULAC for a declaratory order submitted in July asking for clarification around the English-only law as it applies to election materials.

"LULAC is aware of that fact. They openly recognized it in their own petition," Iowa Secretary of State spokesman Kevin Hall responded in an email.

LULAC is requesting the court dissolve the injunction and issue a declaratory order stating the Iowa law does not apply to voting materials. It argues that translating voting materials for Iowans with limited English proficiency falls under an exception in the law that exempts "(a)ny language usage required by or necessary to secure the rights guaranteed" under the U.S. and Iowa constitutions and federal laws.

"Registering to vote is a necessary prerequisite to vote, and Iowa citizens with limited English-language proficiency cannot be expected to navigate the process in a language they cannot understand," according to the suit.

The suit, citing Census Bureau figures, states more than 8% of Iowans predominantly speak languages other than English, with Spanish speakers comprising the largest contingent of non-English speakers in Iowa. More than 50,000 Iowa residents of voting age predominantly speak Spanish, according to LULAC.

LULAC is the largest and oldest Latino civil rights organization in the United States.

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Hall noted his big issues were "economic development, protecting our community's most vulnerable populations, criminal justice reform and matters of diversity, equity and inclusion," noting the county had "serious work to do in order to live up to our fullest potential."

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