Many Don’t Know Help Is Available; Lack of Information May Curb Turnout of Asians, Latinos

Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 510-926-4022; 415-846-7758 (cell)

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA – One in nine eligible California voters speaks only limited English, and many of these voters don’t know what help and services are available to them, says a new report to be released Feb. 18 by The Greenlining Institute. Journalists can preview the report, COMMUNITY VOICES: Improving Access to Voting for California’s Limited-English Communities, by clicking the link above.

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, translated ballots and other election materials are available in as many as nine languages (depending on the limited-English voting population of each county), with the aim of giving limited-English proficient (LEP) voters equal access to the electoral process. But in small-group discussions with ethnically mixed groups of bilingual poll workers, poll monitors, phone bankers and voter mobilization volunteers, Greenlining researchers found 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.”

Among the key findings:

  • Some voters who want materials in other languages don’t receive them and don’t know how to obtain them. Since 2008, voter registration forms have asked the voter’s preferred language for election materials, but this mechanism clearly fails to reach a great many LEP voters.
  • This may explain lower turnout rates among Asian and Latino voters, whose turnout rates run between 11 and 15 percentage points lower than white and black voters.
  • Some LEP voters are uncomfortable asking for language assistance. This appears to be more common in communities with smaller percentages of LEP voters, including the Filipino community. Election workers need to proactively let these voters know help is available.
  • Online voter registration has failed to reach LEP voters. From April to November of 2014, just 1.4 percent of online registrations were in a language other than English.
  • LEP communities generally have less access to information about candidates and ballot issues. Few campaign ads or mailers are translated, so LEP voters miss much of the debate. Poll workers said that many LEP voters feel they have insufficient information, which may further suppress turnout.
  • Translated materials such as the voter guide were perceived as long and confusing. Participants urged use of less legal jargon and plainer language.
  • Much more publicity and outreach is needed to ensure that voters know what language assistance is available.Officials should build partnerships with community-based groups, who are best situated to address social or cultural barriers such as stigma regarding language assistance.


A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute