New America Media
by Viji Sundaram

One in nine eligible California voters speaks only limited English, and many of them don’t know what help and services are available to them in the electoral process, according to a new report released by The Greenlining Institute last week.

In California, the voter registration and turnout rates of Asians and Latinos continue to lag behind whites and African Americans. While 72 percent of whites reported being registered to vote in 2012, only 69 percent of blacks, 58 percent of Asians and 57 percent of Latinos were registered.

Language access plays a role in this, with large numbers of Asians and Latinos being LEP, say Greenlining researchers. Since 2008, voter registration forms have asked the voters’ preferred language for election materials, but this mechanism clearly failed to reach a great many LEP voters, researchers found.

The federal Voting Rights Act requires translated ballots and other election materials be made available in as many as nine languages (depending on the limited voting population of each county) to ensure that limited English proficient (LEP) voters have equal access to the electoral process. In California, for example, assistance in all the nine languages – Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Khmer, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese – is required because of its diverse population.

But Greenlining researchers found there were significant gaps in outreach to these voters.

“California hasn’t done enough to reach the 2.6 million eligible voters who are limited-English proficient, and that may well help explain lower turnout rates among Asians and Latinos,” said report co-author Zainab Badi, Greenlining Institute Claiming Our Democracy Fellow. “For example, online voter registration has almost completely failed to reach these voters, and we simply have to do better.”

For their report, researchers spoke to bilingual poll workers, poll monitors, phone bankers and volunteers who targeted LEP voters in California. Participants said that translated voter information materials were essential, but should be less confusing and more accessible to all voters. Many said they found descriptions of ballot measures too laden with jargon that was confusing even in translation.
Few campaign ads or mailers are translated, so LEP voters miss much of the debate.

Some voters said they felt uncomfortable asking for language assistance, especially those coming from communities with a small percentage of LEP voters.

Experience has shown that when voters are provided with more information, they are more likely to come out and vote. In 2004, for instance, the U.S. Department of Justice sued San Diego County for failing to provide better assistance to Filipino voters. That resulted in the voter registration rates of Filipinos in that county increasing by 20 percent.

Researchers concluded that much more publicity and outreach are needed to ensure that voters know what language assistance is available. Counties should build partnerships with community-based groups that are best situated to address such social and cultural barriers as stigma regarding language assistance, according to the report.