From a Tool to a Barrier: How Language Impacts Political Engagement

By Alexis Shaw on April 21, 2021

As a part of our mission at RepresentWomen, we want to actively break down barriers that prevent all women from running, winning, serving, and leading. Through our research, we have found that language barriers are in place, preventing women who want to serve from accessing pertinent voting information, as well as connections to organizations like us who can help them run. Lack of access to this information is a significant issue in getting women to start their political careers. This type of structural barrier affects women for whom English is not their first language. Language accessibility is also an issue at the voting booths for non-native English speakers who wish to cast their ballots easily and accurately but are faced with language barriers and difficulties.


According to the American Community Survey, an annual sample-based survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, only 239 million people aged five and older speak English at home in the US. This means that approximately 91 million people in this country speak a language other than English in the home, with the Spanish language accounting for 41 million people. With such a large percentage of our population natively speaking a language other than English, many people remain at a disadvantage when it comes to accessibility to pertinent voting information and resources about running for office.


The article “The Language Barrier in the Voting Booth” by Terry Ao Minnis and Adam Ambrogi identified voters in Nevada who struggled with language when it came to voting and  found that 42 percent of the voters who identified as speaking a language other than English at home struggled with the voting process. There were many respondents who needed assistance in Spanish to fully understand the process and their options. Not all voting locations, however, had this essential help available to voters. Voters who primarily speak a language other than English often face hurdles at the polls and may not be able to communicate their needs clearly. Some voters may even be under the assumptions that their difficulty with the English language would make them ineligible to vote. The Voting Rights Act (VRA) fights to ensure there is language assistance for language-minority voters, and poll administrators should ensure that all poll workers are aware of this right and are trained in how to assist voters with language needs.


It is important for our government and political organizations to be aware and attentive of the needs of all people, to include those who have different language capabilities, especially when it comes to democratic engagement and equal voting rights allowing all Americans to engage in our democracy is of critical importance and therefore language accessibility should be put at the forefront of organizations who want to engage with the American population in its entirety. This is why RepresentWomen wants to make it a priority to ensure that people of all language capabilities can engage with the information we provide about voting and electoral reform and bring attention to the barrier faced by non-English speakers when it comes to voting. 


Language accessibility is not only important for ensuring all people can engage with our democracy, but it also ensures that women who have the desire and capability to serve have the equal opportunities regardless of the languages they speak. It is important for organizations to adopt inclusive practices in order to break down the barriers preventing women from connecting with organizations that will help them launch their political careers


infogram_0_24b56b0c-3597-4f7f-969a-7e44bee6e62bLanguage Accessibility in US Stats


The United States is comprised of approximately 44.9 million immigrants, which means there is a great diversity of thoughts and experiences that should be reflected in our democracy (Batalova, J., Hanna, M., Levesque, C., 2021). Inclusive and accessible practices should become commonplace in U.S. politics, allowing all people to actively engage in our political system. We can see this demonstrated by organizations like VoteRunLead, which works to train a culturally diverse group of women leaders to successfully run and serve in office. They work with a similar mission of RepresentWomen to break systemic barriers that keep women of all backgrounds from serving in office. Working to create language accessibility is a meaningful step to assisting all women, regardless of language capability, to be able to run, serve, and lead. It will also ensure that all American citizens, regardless of English proficiency can fully engage in our democracy.


Alexis is a development intern for RepresentWomen. Alexis is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro majoring in International Peace Development.