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Voters cast their ballots at Madison East High School during the November 8, 2016 election. The town of Madison is the first jurisdiction in Dane County to use bilingual ballots. 


For the first time in Dane County, bilingual ballots are being used in a municipality to remain in compliance with the Department of Justice’s language requirements.

The town of Madison is required to offer information on ballots in English and Spanish under Section 203 of the 1975 Voting Rights Act, which determines language assistance for places with Asian American, Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native populations that meet certain requirements.

The Department of Justice, which enforces the law, says the purpose of the language assistance ensures “all citizens will have an effective opportunity to register, learn the details of the elections, and cast a free and effective ballot.”

Town of Madison business manager Renee Schwass said using the ballots for early voters in the Feb. 20 primary was smooth.

“We’ve never encountered a situation where we had a voter who struggled to vote when we had an English ballot,” Schwass said. “We’ve never seen any issues, but we’re required to have a bilingual ballot.”

The town of Madison also has voting machines with an option for a Spanish language ballot, Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said. Though the town is the only jurisdiction mandated by federal law to offer another language, McDonell said Dane County is looking to expand language options.

“It’s on your ATM machine, but it's not on the ballot box,” McDonell said.

City of Madison Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said the city is talking with Dane County about offering bilingual ballots in future elections. Currently, the city offers voters language assistance through bilingual poll workers and interpreters, who are available by cell phone at each polling location.

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A jurisdiction is covered under the federal language provisions when the number of United States citizens of voting age in a single language group is more than 10,000 or is more than five percent of all voting age citizens.

Census Bureau data released in 2016 mandated that new voting jurisdictions in 29 states would be subject to providing language assistance, including the cities of Arcadia and Milwaukee in Wisconsin. 

Angela Berg, city clerk and treasurer in Arcadia, said the city chose to offer one paper ballot with two languages instead of separate ballots in English and Spanish, so that a voter would not need to specifically ask for a particular ballot.

“We felt it was more accessible on one,” Berg said.

The city also purchased a new accessible voting machine that has bilingual capabilities in addition to providing paper ballots with English and Spanish.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.