Ballots across the Bay Area to reflect growing diversity
Posted: 10/13/2011 06:17:52 AM PDT
Dozens of languages are spoken in the Bay Area, and some of them are about to find their way into local voting places as part of newly updated requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act.
Alameda County already provides Chinese and Spanish language assistance at polling stations, but soon must add Vietnamese and Tagalog to its repertoire, according to the voting rights requirements announced Wednesday.
"It means we must translate everything we produce into these additional languages, all the sample ballots, all the material at the polling places, anything we mail out to voters," said Alameda County Registrar Dave Macdonald.
Election sites around the East Bay will also have to staff bilingual poll workers to enable the region's increasingly diverse population to more easily participate in elections.
The California Secretary of State's office said the changes will take effect by the June 2012 election, because voter pamphlets are already mailed out for local elections in November, but federal officials said they are effective now.
"They are legally effective immediately," said Xochitl Hinojosa of the U.S. Department of Justice. "We understand the constraints that jurisdictions are operating under that have elections in November and we have already spoken to many of them."
The changes are a reflection of the region's growing diversity, as well as what the federal government says is a high percentage of voting-age citizens in the Bay Area who do not understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process.
"The Vietnamese community has probably been one of the most underrepresented in the political process," said Shirley Gee, director of the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay. "It's a good thing to do everything we can to make them more engaged and give them better access."
The U.S. Census Bureau released information Wednesday about the new requirements, which affect 248 counties and other voting districts across the country. California has the second highest number of jurisdictions behind Texas that must provide language help, though most of them already do.
Ever since Congress amended the Voting Rights Act to include language minorities in 1975, the government has updated the rules every decade based on the latest data from the census bureau.
Santa Clara County already provides help in Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese and does not have to add any new languages this decade. San Mateo and San Francisco counties already provide help in Chinese and Spanish. And Contra Costa County already helps Spanish speakers.
Napa County will have to add Spanish for the first time.
The language assistance requirements are triggered under federal law if either 5 percent of adult citizens or at least 10,000 people belong to the same language minority, and the illiteracy rate of that group is higher than the national average.
Lillian Galedo of Union City-based Filipino Advocates for Justice said that the inclusion of Tagalog is good news for Alameda County's Filipino-American voters, especially the 22,000 who were born in the Philippines.
"They feel they have a command of English," Galedo said. "The problem is in the way that ballot measures are written. Even English speakers have trouble with the way those ballots are written. So it's important to also have the option of being able to get those in Tagalog, so that one can be as informed as possible."
Macdonald was not surprised with the new requirements, but said recruiting enough bilingual poll workers could be a challenge. There will be a cost to hiring new staff and printing additional material, he added.
"The Tagalog won't be that big of a deal for us," he said. "We have a lot of people working in the office who were born in the Philippines. We have fewer staff who speak Vietnamese."
Anyone who makes a request for voter pamphlets in one of the four mandated languages will be provided them, Macdonald said. His office will also send out postcards to everyone with a Vietnamese or Filipino surname to ask if they want the material.