LULAC files lawsuit to overturn Iowa’s ‘English-Only Law’ for voting materials

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The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa took legal action on Wednesday to overturn a 13-year-old court order that prevents 97 of Iowa’s 99 counties from providing official voting materials in any language other than English, regardless of whether a voter is proficient in English.

The civil rights organization filed a petition in Polk County District Court asking the court to reverse an injunction issued by a Polk County judge in 2008 that stopped the use of non-English language official voting material in the state, ruling it violated Iowa’s so-called “English-Only Law.”

That law, passed by the Iowa Legislature in 2002, requires all “official documents, regulations, orders, transactions, proceedings, programs, meetings, publications, or actions taken or issued [by the state] shall be in the English language.”

Gov. Tom Vilsack vetoed the first version of the bill passed by the legislature, but signed a revised version into law.

“I recognize that the bill is not without controversy,” Vilsack, a Democrat who is currently serving as Biden’s Secretary of Agriculture, said at the time. “My hope is that we will look beyond the controversy and put politics behind us so we can focus on our commitments and responsibility to improve education for all our children.”

Two years later, speaking in front of the Latino Caucus of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Vilsack — still governor at the time — apologized for signing the law.

“It is a bad law,” he said. “If I had a Democratic legislature, I would get rid of that law.” The governor claimed he only signed it because he considered it to be largely ceremonial and polls showed it was very popular with Iowans.

The law does have some exceptions, including one that permits official state material to be translated into other languages when it is “​​necessary to secure the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America or the Constitution of the State of Iowa.”

In 2003, then-Secretary of State (and later governor) Chet Culver interpreted that to mean voting materials could be translated into other languages for voters in Iowa. Under Culver, the Secretary of State’s Office produced voter registration forms in Spanish, Vietnamese, Laotian and Bosnian. Prior to the 2008 election, then-Congressman Steve King sued to stop this.

Steve King, Republican U.S. House Representative from western Iowa, 2003 to 2021. — photo by Gage Skidmore

King had been a member of the Iowa Legislature when the English-only bill was passed, and was an enthusiastic supporter of it. King was joined in his lawsuit by three state senators and four county auditors. One of those auditors was a little-known but ambitious Republican named Joni Ernst.

A Polk County District Court judge sided with King, and issued an injunction ordering the state to stop producing official voting materials in languages other than English. The state did not appeal that decision, even though Culver was governor at that time.

King may have faded from significance, after national and state Republicans decided ignoring his use of white supremacist rhetoric and association with rightwing extremist groups was no longer advantageous to them, but the injunction issued in King v. Mauro remains in force. In September, Secretary of State Paul Pate cited the injunction when he rejected a petition from LULAC asking for voting materials to be provided in other languages on the basis of the “Rights Exception” in the 2002 law.

Currently, only Buena Vista and Tama counties can provide voting materials in other languages, because they are required to do so by federal law. The Latino population in Buena Vista and the Native American population in Tama are large enough for the counties to be covered by the language provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

In its filing on Wednesday, LULAC notes that “more than eight percent of Iowans predominantly speak languages other than English. Spanish speakers are the largest language minority in Iowa; there are over 50,000 Iowa citizens of voting age whose predominant language is Spanish.” Although Buena Vista County still has a large Latino community, “over 97 percent of Iowa’s Spanish-speaking citizens of voting age live outside Buena Vista County,” the filing states.

LULAC is asking the court to issue a declaratory judgement stating “the English-Only Law does not apply to voting materials, including ballots, registration and voting notices, forms, instructions, and other materials and information related to the voting process because they are exempt under the Rights Exception.”

This is the second voting rights lawsuit LULAC of Iowa has filed this year. In March, it sued the state over the new voting restrictions Gov. Reynolds signed into law. That case is still pending.

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