Limited knowledge of English hampers voter turnout

California voters at the polls in Ventura County, 2012. (Photo: American Spirit, via Shutterstock)

Some 2.6 million of California’s eligible voters — about one in nine — speak only limited English and many of them can’t get election information in their native languages, a problem that is playing out in low turnout numbers for Asians and Latinos, according to a new study.

The report commissioned by the nonprofit Greenlining Institute also reported that online voter registration isn’t proving useful to voters with limited expertise in English. In fact, from April to November of 2014, just 1.4 percent of online registrations were in a language other than English.

LEP voters “feel particularly detached from the ballot initiative process. Voting materials are translated, but initiative petitions are not.”

“Many of our participants — presumably more engaged and informed than average voters — did not know that Californians can register to vote online in nine languages” the report said.

Turnout for Asian and Latino voters “is running between 11 and 15 percentage points lower than white and black voters,” according to the study.

“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.

According to the study, researchers interviewed bilingual poll workers, monitors, campaign volunteers in get-out-the-vote drives and others who worked in efforts to target politically voters who do not have English proficiency.

Those  identified as “limited English proficient,” or LEP, voters “feel particularly detached from the ballot initiative process. Voting materials are translated, but initiative petitions are not, leaving LEP voters completely cut out of the first stage of the process. Many are unfamiliar with ballot propositions and find them confusing.”

Federal voting rules require materials to be made available to voters in counties where a significant portion of voters have limited English proficiency. Twenty-seven of California’s 58 counties require those materials.

The Greenlining report’s findings follow the state’s official canvass of the November 2014 vote, in which about four out of 10 people who were registered to vote actually cast ballots — the lowest turnout for a statewide general election in more than a century. Of those who were eligible to vote, about a third actually voted.


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