Multilingual Ballots Help Voters But Challenge Counties

By Jason Margolis

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Federal law requires counties to provide not just bilingual ballots but also language assistance at the polls when five percent of the populations does not “understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process.” It’s been the law since 1975, but many counties don’t comply.  Philip Van knows this all too well. He moved to California from Vietnam as a political refugee in 1979.

Voter registration forms in multiple languages. (Photo by Jason Margolis)

Van grew up speaking Chinese and Vietnamese. Six years after he arrived here, Van had to demonstrate some English proficiency to become an American citizen. But learning English as an adult and then voting in this new language wasn’t so easy. Sure, he could easily choose between the names of two candidates, but deciphering propositions and bond measures — that was tough.

“I have (to) take a lot of time to read it, and then I check with people, where we need to make (it) more clear to understand,” Van says.

Van says many new Americans are afraid to vote in English, afraid they’ll make a mistake.

Van lives in San Francisco, which now offers trilingual ballots in English, Chinese and Spanish. Is it easier for Van to vote now?

“Yes, because a lot of people even though they are well educated … but for those new immigrants, maybe they don’t quite understand about the political stuff,” Van says.

When multilingual ballots are offered, more people vote. Eight years ago, San Diego County began providing Vietnamese voting assistance. The results were immediate and dramatic, says Carlo De La Cruz, with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.

“Voter registration for the Vietnamese community increased by 30 percent,” he says.

De La Cruz says bilingual ballots are crucial today as the U.S. becomes more diverse. One in three Asian-Americans nationwide struggle with English.

But not every person who is entitled to voting assistance gets it. In the past decade, the Justice Department has filed complaints against 44 cities and counties nationwide — including nine in California — for violating election language provisions. Last year, they went after Alameda County.

Now, federal observers will be keeping tabs on every aspect of the voting process there.

“To be in the polling place, to be there when the election officials count the ballots, to be there when the polls open and they turn the machines on. To be there all day,” says Bruce Adelson, a former senior attorney with the Justice Department who led these federal observer assignments.

Adelson now consults with counties about voting compliance issues.

“These cases can be very expensive to litigate and to deal with. And I always advise election officials, it’s much better to comply voluntarily, to have various programs in place, then to get the dreaded call, letter or email from the Department of Justice, from my old friends, saying, essentially, we’re going to come to visit you because we think you’re violating federal law,” Adelson says.

But if voting jurisdictions know this, then why do they violate the law?

“Some of them said that because they were concerned about the cost,” Adelson says. “Some of them … were very upfront with me and said, ‘We just don’t think that these people who you say we should provide information to deserve it.'”

At a Republican primary debate this past January, Newt Gingrich said ballots should only be in English.

Mitt Romney agreed, saying, “Look, English is the language of this nation. People need to learn English to be able to be successful, to get great jobs. We don`t want to have people limited in their capacity to achieve the American dream because they don`t speak English.”

Election officials in Alameda County say they weren’t thumbing their nose at the Voting Rights Act when they failed to comply with the law last year. Cynthia Cornejo, deputy registrar for Alameda County, said the county is required to provide about 1,000 bilingual poll workers in four languages: Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Tagalog, the major language spoken in the Philippines.

“We assessed probably close to … 2,200 people, just to see if they could read, speak, write the language,” Cornejo says. “Then we had to do an enormous outreach effort, all the way, almost until the week before the election, and try and hit our numbers. And then train them also.”

In the June primary, Alameda County once again failed to meet its legal obligations for Chinese and Tagalog poll workers.

Groups like the Asian Law Caucus recognize the strains on Alameda County, but they’re not letting election officials off the hook just for trying.

“Because potentially it means the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters within Alameda County,” Carlo De La Cruz says.

Across California, 26 other counties will also be required to provide language voting assistance this November.