We speak over 200 languages. Why do our ballot initiatives speak only one?

Ballot initiatives are playing an increasingly important role in setting policy in California, on nearly every issue from education to same-sex marriage, but today millions of Californians are excluded from a crucial part of the process.  Despite a long history of struggle to gain voting rights in this country and to ensure that all eligible citizens can exercise this right freely, millions of citizens who do not speak English very well have no say in determining what gets on the ballot.

This is not a hard problem to fix. Senate Bill (SB) 1233, authored by Senator Alex Padilla (D-San Fernando Valley) and sponsored by The Greenlining Institute, would make initiative petitions language accessible and enable more Californians to participate. This important legislation will be considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee May 14.

Right now, voters who are limited-English proficient (LEP) are left completely out of the process of determining what initiatives qualify for the ballot. They are also at risk of manipulation by signature gatherers who may speak the voter’s language but misstate the details of a petition, since the voter has no way to verify whether the gatherer is telling the truth.

Initiative proponents also suffer because they lack the tools necessary to involve LEP voters in signature drives that they might want to support.

According to Migration Policy Institute, California’s LEP population grew by 56 percent from 1990 to 2010, to roughly 6.9 million, which includes nearly half of California’s naturalized citizens. The U.S. Census definition of LEP includes anyone who responded less than “very well” to the question, “how well do you speak English?” Given our state’s large LEP population, it is unacceptable that we continue to deny the rights of so many to participate in direct democracy.

The Federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 outlawed discrimination in voting, with a series of provisions designed to ensure that all eligible citizens can exercise their right to vote free from intimidation or discrimination. Section 203 of the law specifically requires counties with large LEP populations to provide elections materials in the groups’ languages.

For California, this means we provide voting materials, such as ballot pamphlets and sample ballots, in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, Hindi, Khmer, and Thai. But there has been disagreement as to whether or not the VRA covers initiative petitions that are being circulated in hope of making it onto the ballot.

If passed, SB 1233 would solve this problem by requiring the state to provide translations of ballot initiative titles and summaries in each of the languages covered by the VRA, before supporters begin gathering signatures. The translations would appear on the petitions themselves when circulated in counties covered by the VRA.

California was one of the states that pioneered creation of the initiative process a century ago, and SB 1233 gives us another opportunity to show leadership. If it passes, California would become the first state to mandate language accessible initiative petitions, raising the bar for the rest of the nation.

The initiative system was created so that the people could hold their government accountable  — all of the people, not just some of them. Passing SB 1233 will ensure that all citizens can participate in our democracy.

Michelle Romero is Claiming Our Democracy Program Manager and Nisha Balaram is SB 1233 Policy Coordinator for The Greenlining Institute.

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