In summary

Arabic-speaking Californians will need translated ballots so their marginalized voices will have a say in the November election.

By Sukaina Hussain and

Sukaina Hussain is the outreach director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Central California office, s.hussain@cair.com.

Christina Fletes-Romo, Special to CalMatters

Christina Fletes-Romo is a voting rights attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, cfletes@acluca.org.

This year, thousands of California voters will be unable to cast an informed vote in the November election. It will not be for lack of interest in this election, or for lack of access to a physical ballot. It will be because government officials failed to provide them with the language services they needed to understand what and whom they are voting for.

The problem lies in officials’ overreliance on population data to dictate which limited-English-proficient communities receive language services, such as translation services or translated ballots, in elections. It is well documented that the data is fundamentally flawed, erasing historically marginalized communities. The Census does not adequately capture immigrant populations, many of whom are people of color.

The Arabic-speaking community of Fresno County stands as a prime example. This year, our advocacy coalition brought this historically marginalized community to the attention of Secretary of State Alex Padilla. His office holds the broad authority under state law to provide language services to people who speak languages from Africa and the Middle East.

Despite our coalition demonstrating that the Arabic-speakers of Fresno are repeatedly erased in government data, Padilla failed to use his powers of office to provide them with the language services they need to vote.

According to interviews that our coalition conducted with community leaders, Fresno County’s Arabic-speaking population is estimated at 6,000-10,000 people, half of whom are estimated to be limited-English proficient. However, the federal government’s American Community Survey 2018 data captures only a fraction of that range, calculating 1,453 limited-English proficient Arabic speakers.

Community leaders note that one of the many reasons that government data erases this population is that it counts Middle Eastern communities as white, and that survey respondents must specifically note Arabic as their first language in order to be recognized in the data. Notwithstanding the many flaws in government data collection systems, the Arabic-speaking voters of Fresno County want their voices heard.

Arabic-speakers have called Central California home for generations and have been engaged in decades-long struggles to have a say in the policies that impact their communities. Yemeni farmworkers started arriving as early as the 1940s and 1950s, and then began to immigrate in large numbers in the 1960s and 1970s. These communities marched alongside Cesar Chavez during the farmworkers movement of the 1960s, and some died on the front lines of protest.

Today, Arabic-speaking American citizens with origins in Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Syria also compose a significant portion of the Fresno County population. Many work on farms; in factories and slaughterhouses; as Uber drivers; nonprofit and faith leaders; and as owners of convenience stores and other small businesses.

The electoral issues that hold power over their lives range across the ballot: from the school board, which impacts Arabic-speaking students; to water contamination, which impacts the Yemeni populations that live in rural areas; to members of Congress, who are able to ensure that immigration policies are inclusive of their background; to the presidential ticket, which has resulted in the Muslim ban and separation of families at the border.

This population exemplifies the work that needs to be done in California to create a strong, multilingual democratic process that serves the multilingual voters of this racially and ethnically diverse state, with its rich history of immigration. California’s  Secretary of State has the power to provide this population – and others erased in government data, and consequently in our elections – with translated reference ballots, or translated votable ballots. These would constitute meaningful measures to empower historically marginalized voices with the ability to participate in our democracy.

As former Rep. John Lewis reminded us, the voting rights struggle is a living history, not a fossilized moment in time. Our state and local elections officials must stand as an example for the rest of our nation, making full use of their powers of office to accommodate a wider range of citizens with language access barriers.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Gary Reed with any commentary questions: gary@calmatters.org, (916) 234-3081.