California Voters Sue for Translation Services at Polls

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Thousands of California voters will be left without much-needed language assistance at the polls this November, civil rights groups claim in a petition filed Monday in state court to compel Secretary of State Alex Padilla to increase access to translated ballots.

The 17-page petition filed by a coalition of groups, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Northern California chapter of the ACLU, claims Padilla improperly limited the scope of languages entitled to language assistance to a small group covered under federal law when he issued his updated directive on language to county election officials at the end of 2017.

“There are thousands of precincts that will not receive the necessary language assistance under the current directive,” said Deanna Kitamura, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles in a statement Monday. “We should not be creating additional hurdles in order for groups to receive the language assistance they are entitled to under California law.”

The petition also says Padilla’s directive required language assistance only in precincts where three percent of a county’s voting age residents lack sufficient English skills, rather than at the county level, as required under California Elections Code. The Secretary of State is required by the code to make determinations every four years as to the jurisdictions that must provide language assistance.

“Spanish speakers accounted for at least three percent of voting age residents in 18 counties, but the Secretary only required coverage in Spanish in particular precincts within those counties that had also hit the three percent threshold,” the petition states.

Speaking with Courthouse News by phone on Monday, Kitamura said the issue of language access has long been a problem in California.

“We were working with the Secretary of State’s office, hoping the new determinations would not limit the coverage as it had in the past,” she said. “When [the directive] came out in December we were disappointed. He did cover more than prior secretaries of state, but it was not at the level required by law.”

She added, “The language assistance we think is required by law has not been provided in the past. What we find is when resources are provided, voting increases. If [Padilla] increased assistance, it means people are going to be able to vote and it might mean increased turn out.”

Padilla’s spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking comment Monday.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice estimates that a little over 80,000 Californians will likely be deprived of the language assistance to which they are entitled under state law. Speakers of 34 languages are affected, the group says; particularly those who speak Spanish, Farsi, Arabic, Japanese and Russian.

California Elections Code requires language assistance in each county or precinct where at least three percent of its residents have limited English proficiency. This means providing “facsimile” translated ballots that voters can use as a reference while voting on a ballot in English. Polling place signage must also inform voters of the existence of translated ballots.

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