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Language Access and the June 5th Election

Posted: May 24, 2012

The California Primary Election is on June 5th, and for the first time in Alameda County all election materials must be translated into Tagalog and Vietnamese, as well as Chinese and Spanish, which have been covered in the past. New America Media’s Zaineb Mohammed spoke to Christopher Punongbayan, Deputy Director at the Asian Law Caucus, about what limited English-speaking voters should expect to find at the polls, what problems with language access have come up in the past on Election Day, and what potential issues to look out for.

What are the potential language access issues that could come up for limited English-speaking voters on June 5th?

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 November 2010, in Alameda County, 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.

When was the language mandate added to the Voting Rights Act (VRA)? What specifically is required?

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was landmark legislation that addressed all the historical exclusion facing voters of color. Section 203, passed in 1975, was an amendment to the original legislation, because Congress recognized that a really high barrier to voting was the language barrier.

Congress established this formula by which if a language minority hit a certain threshold, and that group had an illiteracy rate in English higher than the national average, then a jurisdiction is required to provide all written election materials in that language, and provide bilingual language assistance at the polls.

For immigrants who have become U.S. citizens, one of the rights and responsibilities they have is to become active in our political process. We want to make sure there are no barriers for them to express their voice through the ballot.

Have there been problems with language access in previous elections?

Alameda County was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) last year for failing to comply with section 203 of the VRA with regard to the Chinese community.

As a result of the intervention by the DOJ, the county entered into a consent decree, agreeing to improve the language assistance in order to ensure that limited English proficient voters don’t experience the same problems again.

The most important part of the consent decree is that it set out specific numerical targets for how many bilingual election officials should be present. The consent decree also said that if any new languages get added to the county’s obligations, which ended up being Tagalog and Vietnamese, those fall under the decree as well.

How many bilingual poll workers are now required to be in any particular precinct in Alameda County?

If a precinct has 35-84 Chinese surnames, the county has to provide at least one bilingual election official. Another way they figure out the need for bilingual poll workers is from language assistance requests. If the county gets 10 requests for language assistance from a single precinct, they also have to provide one bilingual election poll worker.

If 4% of the total number of registered voters in a precinct has a Filipino or Vietnamese surname, they have to provide one bilingual poll worker. If there’s 6%, the county has to provide two.

What should voters expect to find at their polling stations?

There should be signs indicating that bilingual assistance is available and information that the bilingual poll workers wear, like badges, that indicate that they are a bilingual poll worker.

Voters should find the ballot itself, as well as a voter guide, translated into all of the covered languages.

Are there other potential voting rights violations that voters should look out for on Election Day?

A voter is allowed to bring someone into the polling booth with them to assist them to vote – for any reason - if the person just needs help understanding, even in English, what the ballot measures mean. Sometimes that’s something that’s overlooked by poll workers who say only the person who is voting can go into the booth, but a person can bring another person of their choosing, as long as it’s not their employer or someone from their union.

What will the Asian Law Caucus be doing during the June 5th elections, in terms of monitoring language access compliance?

We are going to be monitoring for compliance with the consent decree and Section 203 of the VRA for Chinese, Tagalog, and Vietnamese in Alameda County.

We have established partnerships with community organizations that represent those 3 language groups - Filipino Advocates for Justice, Lao Family Community Development, and Family Bridges.

We’re recruiting and doing trainings for poll monitors who are going to be at the polls in high-density neighborhoods when they open. They will be examining whether or not all the translated materials are available, and if the bilingual poll workers are present. We will be holding trainings for anyone who would like to be a poll monitor on Tuesday, May 29th at 6 pm in Oakland. 

In Sacramento, we’re working with community organizations and the registrar of voters because this is the first time they’re providing bilingual ballots in Chinese.

If a limited English proficient voter arrives at the polls to find that the translated materials are not there, and a bilingual poll worker is not present, what can they do?

Depending on their English fluency level, they can ask poll workers for the translated materials. There is also an elections related language hotline staffed by the Registrar of Voters from now until after Election Day, which is available in all the covered languages.

For English speakers, the number is: (510) 267-8683, for Chinese: (510) 208-9665, for Spanish: (510) 272-6975, for Tagalog: (510) 272-6952, and for Vietnamese (510) 272-6956

To learn more about becoming a poll monitor, please click

Image provided by Shutterstock.com

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