New bill aims to improve access for voters with limited English

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During the 2016 election, the Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, a group that advocates for the legal rights of Asian Pacific Islanders, discovered that many polling places in California did not provide limited-English speaking voters the opportunity to vote privately. Instead, they had to vote in an open space, referring to a translated facsimile ballot that was posted on a wall inside of polling sites. Now they’re working with a state official to make voting as private as possible for all voters.

Two weeks ago, California Assemblymember Rob Bonta, who represents Oakland, introduced Assembly Bill 918, or the “California Voting for All Act.” If passed, it would allow eligible voters with limited English proficiency to bring laminated translated voting ballots into a private voting booth, instead of having to refer to one posted on a wall.

Bonta said that posted facsimile ballots are insufficient for ensuring a voter’s privacy. “If someone wants to use it, they have to sit at that post at the wall. Voters should be able to go into the privacy of a booth in the language they’re comfortable with and vote for people they want to represent them,” he said.

Bonta called AB 918 “a bill of inclusion.” He said voter inclusion is always important, but it’s especially important at a time with “a president spreading xenophobia and hate.” He said he wants every Californian to be able to vote. “Whether English is your first language or you learned it, you’re a Californian. You’re a voter,” he said.

The Asian Law Caucus (ALC) and Bonta are concerned about low turnout among voters with limited English speaking abilities. According to the California Civic Engagement Project, a research group at the UC Davis’ Center for Regional Change, nationwide, 90 million eligible voters did not participate in last year’s election. Less than 40 percent of eligible Asian American and less than half of eligible Latino voters voted in California.

An ALC investigation of California polls inspired Bonta’s bill. On Election Day, the ALC had 576 volunteers visit 1,280 polling places throughout Northern and Southern California, as well as in the Central Valley. They were particularly looking to see which polling places were abiding by the federal and state Voting Rights Acts, focusing on accommodations for minority language voters.

The federal Voting Rights Act mandates that all voting materials (including ballots, voter registration forms, voter instructions and Registrar of Voters’ elections websites) be translated into the language of any minority community that makes up 5 percent or more of the county’s population, or at least 10,000 people.

Under state law, if that minority community makes up 3 percent or more of the precinct, translated facsimile ballots must be posted on a wall at polling sites. But the state does not currently require that every voting document be translated.

If passed, Bonta’s bill would require polling places to have several laminated facsimile ballots that voters can take with them into their private booths, rather than referring to just one posted on a wall in an open space.

The ALC learned that although many polling places throughout California closely followed federal law for minority language voters, they did a poor job of abiding by state law. According to Jonathan Stein, attorney and head of the ALC’s voting rights program, all 63 Contra Costa County polling places volunteers visited followed federal regulations. But, Stein said, 39 percent of the polling places their volunteers visited were missing facsimile ballots, which are required by state law.

Representatives from the Contra Costa County Registrar of Voters office did not respond to comment in time for press.

Stein said 41 percent of San Mateo County polling sites they visited were missing facsimile sheets and 43 percent were missing in Fresno.

Stein said Alameda County followed state laws exceptionally well in comparison to other Bay Area counties. He said after visiting 93 polling places in the county, ALC volunteers expected to find 43 translated facsimile ballots. Of these, only four were missing, or about 9 percent.

Tim Dupuis, Alameda County Registrar of Voters said he was pleased to hear the results. He added that the Alameda County ROV follows state and federal laws very carefully. He also said it is their year-round community outreach that makes limited English proficiency voters feel welcomed when voting at their polling sites. “We make sure everybody knows they can make that language preference,” Dupuis said. “We’ve attended over 200 cultural events to educate voters.” He also said they use an online app to reach voters and have advisory groups where leaders speak the languages of communities that meet that 3 percent or 5 percent threshold.

Stein said even though many polling spots throughout California posted facsimile ballots, poll workers aren’t trained to properly teach limited English proficient voters about them.  “Voters aren’t told they’re there in advance. There’s no signage to tell them it exists,” he said. “There’s no reason why a voter whose limited English proficient would stop to look around and find this thing. I think usage rate is much lower than it could be.”

The ALC found that only 41 percent of the California polling places their volunteers visited had translated signs indicating where the facsimile ballots were located.

If passed, AB 918 would require polling workers to explicitly tell limited English proficiency voters where facsimile ballots are located. Polling places will also publicize that facsimile sheets are available for vote-by-mail ballots and inside the polls. Bilingual poll workers would have to wear stickers that show the language they speak to demonstrate that they can assist voters who don’t speak English. The bill would also require polling places that acquire new voting systems to use bilingual ballots rather than facsimile ballots.

Dupuis said when he looked at the bill he couldn’t foresee any drastic changes that Alameda County would have to undergo if it passes. “It reinforces what we are currently doing,” he said.

Stein said there could be some small challenges for local registrars, such as additional printing costs, but they’re worth the reward of getting more Californians to vote.

Some organizations are already supporting AB 918. Raul Macias, voting rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California, said the group is supportive of its ideas. “Asian Americans Advancing Justice has done a great job identifying areas improving language access. We [ACLU] are definitely on board with improving language access,” he said.

But, Bonta anticipates pushback from some politicians. “For some folks, they don’t necessarily want API [Asian Pacific Islanders] and Latino voters to vote,”  he said. “But when there’s a big turnout, where everybody comes out representing API, Latino community, Black community, that’s democracy in action.”

The bill is currently being reviewed by the Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting, which reviews all bills related to elections.

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