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Translating into Votes: The Electoral Impacts of Spanish-Language Ballots


  • This article was presented at the 2009 Conference on Empirical Legal Studies at the University of Southern California, the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, the George Washington University American Politics Seminar, the Triangle Political Methodology Group at the University of North Carolina, the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, and the Dreher Colloqium at The Ohio State University. The author is grateful to Marisa Abrajano, Michael Bailey, Rafaela Dancygier, Bernard Fraga, Emily Gregory, Gary King, Stefano M. Iacus, John McTague, Marc Meredith, Michael Parkin, Deborah Schildkraut, John Sides, and Erik Voeten for comments or other assistance. The author also acknowledges excellent research assistance by Robert Biemesderfer, Elina Clavelli, Douglas Kovel, Gracie Rios, Anton Strezhnev, and William Tamplin as well as the assistance of scores of election officials in California counties. The article is stronger thanks to comments from the anonymous reviewers and AJPS editor Rick Wilson. This article was previously titled “Language Access and Initiative Outcomes.”

Daniel J. Hopkins is Assistant Professor of Government, Georgetown University, 3700 O Street, NW, Washington, DC 20057 (


This article investigates the impact of one election procedure designed to enfranchise immigrants: foreign-language election materials. Specifically, it uses regression discontinuity design to estimate the turnout and election impacts of Spanish-language assistance provided under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Analyses of two different data sets—the Latino National Survey and California 1998 primary election returns—show that Spanish-language assistance increased turnout for citizens who speak little English. The California results also demonstrate that election procedures can influence outcomes, as support for ending bilingual education dropped markedly in heavily Spanish-speaking neighborhoods with Spanish-language assistance. Small changes in election procedures can influence who votes as well as what wins.