January 15, 2017
Armed with a checklist and a No. 2 pencil, Joyce Xi was standing in a San Francisco polling place when she noticed a voter with a problem. An elderly voter had entered the polling place and was struggling to communicate with a poll worker. “He needed a Vietnamese ballot but the poll workers were making no effort to provide him one,” says Joyce, who is also ALC’s community advocate on its National Security and Civil Rights team. ”They didn’t even realize there was one there.”
As one of the almost 400 volunteers Asian Law Caucus sent to Northern California and Central Valley polling places on Election Day in November 2016, Joyce knew exactly what to do. “We knew beforehand what language assistance each polling place required and that this location was supposed to have a Vietnamese facsimile ballot available.” As the voter was about to head to the booth with a Filipino/Tagalog ballot that the poll worker offered, Joyce intervened and let both the voter and poll worker know that a Vietnamese copy of the ballot was supposed to be available. Relieved, the voter got the language assistance he needed (and that was owed to him under state law) and cast his ballot. “I was happy that he was able to cast his vote but it made me wonder how many people may have had difficulties voting because of a lack of adequate language assistance,” Joyce recalls.
She’s right to wonder. Helping voters with problems big and small, Joyce and ALC’s poll monitors evaluated in real time how effective language assistance provided to voters was in almost 800 polling places across 17 California counties. What they found was incidents like this one are far from isolated. Across the state, polling places even in the most densely populated immigrant communities were missing translated ballots, were lacking signage to let limited-English proficient (LEP) voters know what assistance was available, and had poll workers unsure of how best to assist LEP voters. For instance, our poll monitors found 24% of state-mandated translated copies of ballots (known was “facsimile” ballots in the state Elections Code) were not properly displayed upon our poll monitors’ arrival. In several large, diverse counties this number was as high as 40%. While over 90% of polling places we visited had at least one bilingual poll worker, roughly 40% of polling places with bilingual poll workers had no translated signage indicating to voters that bilingual assistance was available.
Part of the reason why these findings are so disappointing is that the need for effective language assistance in voting is greater in California than anywhere else, because of our higher numbers of immigrant votes and LEP voters. According to the Census Bureau, nearly 7 million Californians are limited in their English ability. Most of these people are part of California’s rapidly growing Asian American and Latino communities. Of California’s Asian American immigrants, 46% speak English less than very well. Among California’s Latinos, it’s 34%. While California may not have overt voter discrimination laws, the way other states do with voter ID laws that erect barriers for young voters, voters of color, and low-income voters, failing to provide adequate language assistance can be a more subtle way of disenfranchising those LEP voters who make up such a large part of our communities.
At ALC, we fight for solutions when we see a problem plaguing our communities. So we’re introducing a bill in the State Legislature that, if passed, will dramatically strengthen the language access available to voters under state law. Translated ballots would be more visible and more useful to voters, counties would be accountable for their provision of bilingual poll workers for the first time, and LEP voters would get more (translated) information about the services available to them. For our state’s democracy to truly be representative, and to grow as the size and diversity of our state grows, California has to lead the nation on language access in elections. ALC is hoping to get it there. Until then, we’ve got Joyce and all the amazing volunteers like her.