As we mark the 52nd anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the California Legislature has an opportunity to pass a bill that furthers the spirit of that monumental but now diminished achievement and to elevate the voices of the immigrant communities that are under threat in our national politics.
It is a dangerous time for voting rights. The Trump administration’s commission to study voter fraud is staffed with the nation’s premier vote deniers and is premised on President Donald Trump’s erroneous claim that up to 5 million people voted illegally in 2016. States around the nation have passed voter ID laws, rollbacks of early voting, and other voter restrictions.
It is also a dangerous time for immigrants. Immigration arrests of individuals without criminal convictions have doubled under the Trump administration. Deportations of DACA recipients are surging. The on-again-off-again Muslim ban has fractured families and whole communities.
State law only requires the posting of a translated copy of a ballot at local polling places. Despite the presence of these so-called ‘facsimile ballots’ for more than 20 years, most voters have no idea they exist.
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California has a chance to push in the opposite direction on both fronts. Assembly Bill 918 by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, makes it easier for hundreds of thousands of limited-English speaking immigrant voters to participate in our democracy and, if passed, would represent the high-water mark nationally for ensuring language access in voting.
California is home to 6.8 million individuals who are limited-English proficient (LEP); around one-third of California’s Asian Americans and Latinos identify as LEP. These groups also vote at much lower rates than the state at large.
While the vast majority of LEP voters receive language assistance protections under the Voting Rights Act, 550,000 of California’s LEP Latinos and Asian Americans rely on state law to provide access to the ballot. These include Latinos in San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz counties, Cambodian Americans and Punjabi Americans in the Central Valley, and Filipino Americans in Sacramento and Stockton.
State law fails these communities. Where an LEP language community resides, state law only requires the posting of a translated copy of a ballot at their local polling places. Despite the presence of these so-called “facsimile ballots” in polling places for more than 20 years, most voters have no idea they exist.
Those voters who do stumble upon a translated facsimile ballot are denied a private vote because they must vote while toggling between the English ballot in their hand and the translated reference tool posted on the wall. The situation is worse for vote-by-mail voters: Facsimile ballots are not available to them at all.
In execution, the current law is even weaker. Last November, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – California monitored more than 1,300 polling places across the state to determine how federal and state language access laws operated in real time. Our findings were published in a report titled “Voices of Democracy: The State of Language Access in California’s 2016 Elections,” the largest examination of language access in California elections ever published.
One in four facsimile ballots was not displayed at polling places. In several cases poll workers openly admitted that they did not know what a facsimile ballot was or when they were supposed to provide it to a voter. At hundreds of polling places, no signage was present to alert voters to the presence of facsimile ballots.
AB 918 uses common-sense steps already piloted by proactive elections officials to solve these problems. By lowering barriers to participation, it should create a California democracy that better reflects all of California.
As the state with the most immigrant voters in the nation, California has an obligation to stand as a counterexample to the Trump administration and states around the nation that are rolling back voting rights and immigrants’ rights. By passing AB 918, California can do just that.
Jonathan Stein is the program manager and staff attorney for the Voting Rights program at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. Deanna Kitamura is the Voting Rights Project Director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.