Every eligible voter in the United States has the right to vote. But, that right to vote means nothing if it is not accessible to individuals with a wide range of backgrounds.
In recent decades, federal legislation has ensured that voters with disabilities or voters who have limited English proficiency and need help reading and writing English can access the ballot box. One law, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), contains a wide range of protections to ensure that all eligible voters can cast their ballots. A key, but often overlooked, provision of the VRA is Section 208, which states that all individuals who need assistance when voting can receive that assistance from a person of their choice.
Why do we need federal legislation to ensure voters can receive assistance?
Adopted during the height of the civil rights movement due to the tireless efforts of Black activists, the VRA enforced the 15th Amendment and addressed barriers that prevented Black voters from casting their ballots.
As the decades passed, the VRA was expanded to also be a tool for protecting other groups of voters not initially mentioned in the law’s language. Since its adoption in 1965, the VRA has been amended five times: in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992 and 2006. Each time, new provisions were added to expand voting rights for individuals who may be otherwise excluded from the franchise due to accessibility.
In 1975, Congress added a provision — Section 203 — to the VRA, which is still active today and requires election officials to provide language accommodations, including translated voting materials and fluent poll workers, in areas that reach a threshold number of residents who predominantly speak a language other than English. But, what about voters with limited English proficiency who don’t happen to live in a community with a large enough population of people who speak the same language? And what about voters who need other forms of assistance at the polls due to a disability? This is where Section 208, bolstered by later federal legislation aimed at protecting these groups of voters, comes in.
What does Section 208 do?
In 1982, the VRA was amended to explicitly add protections for individuals who need assistance to complete the voting process following advocacy highlighting the intersection of disability rights and voting rights. The first federal legislation of its kind, Section 208, titled “Voting assistance for blind, disabled or illiterate persons,” reads:
Any voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice, other than the voter’s employer or agent of that employer or officer or agent of the voter’s union.
Crucially, Section 208, unlike Section 203, applies nationwide and is not subject to any formula to determine who legally qualifies for assistance. In the legislative process leading up to Section 208’s adoption, legislators highlighted the importance of ensuring assistance was readily available to those who need it. Since voters who need accommodations to navigate the voting process may otherwise not be able to cast their ballots, lawmakers concluded that federal protections were crucial because, without them, “members of such groups run the risk that they will be discriminated against at the polls and that their right to vote in state and federal elections will not be protected.”
Legislators also recognized the importance of allowing voters to choose a person to assist them in completing their ballots — a key part of Section 208. This means that voters can ask family members, friends or neighbors to help them vote during all steps of the process, rather than rely on a stranger who they may not trust (Section 208’s only limitation is that voters cannot ask their coworkers or a union member for assistance). Noting in the U.S. Senate report accompanying the 1982 amendment that “it is only natural that many such voters may feel apprehensive about casting a ballot in the presence of, or may be misled by, someone other than a person of their own choice,” legislators determined that allowing a voter to pick who is assisting them “is the only way to assure meaningful voting assistance and to avoid possible intimidation or manipulation of the voter. To do otherwise would deny these voters the same opportunity to vote enjoyed by all citizens.”
Section 208 remains a crucial legal protection even as the rest of the VRA hangs in limbo.
While Section 208 was initially passed with a focus on voters with disabilities or who are illiterate, the provision has also been applied to protect voters who predominantly speak a language other than English and need assistance reading and writing in English. Litigation raising Section 208 claims has successfully blocked laws that limited voter assistance. Courts in North Carolina and Texas recently struck down restrictions on who could help voters with disabilities and voters with limited English proficiency complete their ballots, ensuring that these voters can receive help from a person of their choice at all steps of the process.
However, Section 208 has its limitations. In advocating for a broader framework for language assistance accommodation, the legal scholar and lawyer Angelo Ancheta notes that “the responsibilities for providing the accommodation fall largely on voters themselves, not on the government entities that administer elections.” This is because, while the provision creates “the basis for a Voting Rights Act violation if election officials impede or deny a voter’s use of an assistor in order to vote,” the law “imposes no standards on the quality of the assistance provided to the voter, nor does it impose significant obligations on government to ensure meaningful access to voting.”
Other landmark legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and Help America Vote Act of 2002, has further expanded federal protections for voters with disabilities and voters with limited English proficiency. These laws are crucial: Black Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of the country’s disabled population, voters with disabilities have a lower participation rate in elections due to structural barriers and language diversity has continued to grow in recent decades. By explicitly acknowledging the fact that voting rights are inextricably linked to both disability rights and minority rights, these laws have helped enforce and implement protections to keep the voting process accessible to all eligible voters. Though those seeking to suppress voting rights have unfortunately succeeded in chipping away at some of the VRA’s biggest provisions, Section 208 remains a key tool to protect voters who need assistance at the polls.