Language Access issues are on the minds of many Californians with the state’s Primary Election less than two weeks away. Counties are translating election materials into key high-needs languages to ensure that major limited-English-proficient (LEP) voting populations have meaningful access to the polls on Election Day, and advocates are on the lookout for other language-access barriers that have plagued past elections. Christopher Punongbayan, Deputy Director at the Asian Law Caucus, told New America Media:
The main thing we’re going to be monitoring for, one of the biggest issues that comes up on Election Day, is the availability of bilingual poll workers at the poll sites. In…2010…there were not an adequate number of bilingual election officials present at the polls. At one polling site, the worker told the voters to come back later because there weren’t enough bilingual poll workers available. So basically the voters were refused their right to wait in line, to get their ballot. The other thing will be the availability of the translated election materials. In some instances in the past, poll sites were set up such that the bilingual materials were not available. At poll sites where the workers are not adequately trained they only put out what they think is needed rather than what the law requires, which is all the materials in all the mandated languages.
According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), California is home to the largest foreign-born LEP population in the United States – approximately 5,807,401 persons, to be precise – many of whom are eligible to vote. 46.5% of California’s naturalized U.S. citizens age 5 and older are limited- or non-English-proficient. A report by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) underscores the disparate impact that language-access barriers have on communities of color:
California’s democracy is challenged by low voter participation in communities of color. Poll monitoring efforts…reveal that communities of color, especially those with large populations of new voters and/or limited English proficient voters, must often overcome significant language barriers to voting. A recent Public Policy Institute of California study found that the state’s electorate does not reflect California’s racial diversity, with persons of color making up over half of California’s adult population but only three out of ten likely voters…Many systemic barriers to voting, particularly those faced by new and limited English proficient voters, can be addressed by ensuring compliance with existing federal and state laws mandating language assistance at the polls.
LEP voters whose language groups meet or exceed a minimum threshold percentage of the overall population are entitled, by law, to access the polls at the same level as native English speakers. Democracy cannot flourish if millions of voters are excluded from participating in the electoral process.