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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? Continue reading