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Poll Monitoring in the 2020 Election: Alameda County

September 20, 2021 Perspective

Language access is key to ensuring all eligible voters can easily cast their ballots and therefore is an essential part of free and fair elections. That’s why our Voting Rights team demanded change in Alameda County after our poll monitors found system-wide issues in the November 2020 election.

The goal of our poll monitoring program, which is the largest effort in Northern California, is to ensure that all eligible voters are able to cast their ballots, with a particular focus on historically disenfranchised communities like Asian Americans and immigrants.

Two women wearing masks stand in front of a palm tree holding a sign with election protection information

In November 2020, our team of trained volunteers visited almost every voting location across thirteen counties: 500+ vote centers and polling places from Sacramento to Fresno. Poll monitors checked for compliance with language and disability rights laws, and made sure that voters could vote without facing barriers, such as improper requests for ID or harassment.

Disturbingly, poll monitors found a disturbing pattern of violations of state language access laws at more than two dozen voting locations in Alameda County. While it’s true that election officials were facing unprecedented challenges during the November 2020 election, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Alameda County was the only county we monitored that had a failing at the systemic level with their handling of language materials.

A 2014 estimate from The Greenlining Institute found that Alameda County has more than 117,000 citizens of voting age who are limited English speakers. Under state law, polling places must prominently post and provide sample translated ballots to help limited English speakers fill out their own ballot. Yet, at most voting sites, sample translated ballots were not displayed and workers did not know about requirements to do so.

While our poll monitors surfaced this issue during the early voting period, Alameda County only stepped in to fix these problems on Election Day for the last day of voting after we threatened litigation with our partner ACLU-NC.

Poll monitoring is a crucial element of our voting rights work in addition to creating Know Your Rights materials. In Alameda County, poll monitors helped ensure all residents could vote regardless of their preferred language. In the Bay Area and across the state, our poll monitoring program will continue to identify barriers to voting as we fight for a stronger democracy together.