In summary

California’s push to expand language access in elections has run headlong into pandemic fears and record numbers of Californians voting early, from home.

When the coronavirus limited public gatherings across the state, it was Evelyn Mendez’s job to figure out how to help keep Santa Clara County’s elections rolling.

As the county registrar’s public and legislative affairs manager, she helped oversee recruiting of bilingual poll workers. More voters request election materials in Vietnamese than Spanish in the county, and the latter is on par with Chinese dialects.

“We didn’t think that we were going to be able to meet our goals because of COVID and people are nervous about getting out there. But this election is bringing so much attention,” Mendez said.

Turns out, the county recruited more than 100 more bilingual workers than it planned. But counties across the state aren’t seeing the same success. California’s push to expand language access in elections has run headlong into pandemic fears and record numbers of Californians voting early, from home. 

This presidential election is the first since the legislature passed, and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed, the California Voting for All Act in 2017 to expand access for voters who are not fluent in English. The state law requires more availability of translated materials and that counties report to the state how many bilingual translators are at precincts.

In addition, language access advocates won a lawsuit last year to force the state to follow the California elections code. Despite legal requirements, some counties say they are struggling to find enough bilingual poll workers because of the risk of infection from the coronavirus. Instead, some are filling the gaps through technology like phone or video conference translation.

The bottom line for voters who are not fluent English speakers? Advocates say they have a right to ask for translation help, depending on the language and the county. Despite the pandemic, they have a right to bring someone to the polls to help translate, as long as that person is not a union representative or employer. And, if voting from home, they often can find translated election material on their county elections site. 

Bilingual poll workers ‘hard to find’

“It’s hard to find people that are bilingual that can take a full day off of work and spend the day as a poll worker,” said Christina Fletes, a voting rights attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California. “It’s especially hard for counties that are not in metro areas that don’t have community-based organizations that they can reach out to for help.”

That difficulty showed during the March primary, even though California had not yet shut down because of the pandemic. The Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus monitored polls at almost 500 vote centers and polling places across the Bay area and Central Valley. They observed polling locations without translation materials, technology issues, and noted that the remote translation services available helped, but were not ideal.

They also found that bilingual poll workers weren’t always available for the state-covered languages. Some sites, like two in Napa, had no bilingual staff at all, they reported.

Conversations with election officials, who say they are trying to do better, show the challenge. For instance, San Diego County is home to Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog and other Asian language voters. It has luck finding bilingual poll workers — and then they quit.

Officials wanted at least one bilingual poll worker for each of their 235 polling sites, supplying help to voters who speak that language, but not others. They might not meet even that minimal goal.

“We’re only as good as individuals that want to participate,” said Michael Vu, San Diego County registrar. “It’s a little different this election because of the pandemic.”

Monitors observed polling locations without translation materials, technology issues, and less-than-ideal remote translation services.

In Sonoma County, officials found Spanish speakers for all but four of its 30 polling locations. Secretary of State data shows the number of voters requesting Asian-language ballots there to be in the hundreds. The county recruited one Tagalog speaker and, for one or two days, a Vietnamese and a Khmer speaker. It couldn’t find anyone who spoke any Chinese dialect. 

Ballots in Napa County were mailed in English and Spanish. But the county has not been able to recruit enough Tagalog-speaking poll workers.

“That’s one area where we are not as great as I wish we were,” Registrar of Voters John Tuteur said.

Madison Wyman, assistant county clerk registrar of voters for Butte County, said it sought a Spanish speaker and Hmong speaker for every vote center, but “it was really difficult because of COVID. And it’s difficult usually to get bilingual poll workers.” 

“Sometimes we’re able to make that happen. Sometimes we’re not,” Wyman said. 

Orange County is a bright spot amid efforts to find enough language proficiency among poll workers. Officials said they will have about 200 poll workers who speak Spanish, 28 who speak Korean and at least one Chinese dialect, and 54 Vietnamese speakers.

“We definitely had a lot of interest,” said Jackie Wu, community outreach manager for the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

Their team analyzes voter data to figure out how much language translation they need to provide at various polling places.  

“We want to place a bilingual (poll worker) in an area where we received lots of language requests so we know where they would be most helpful,” Wu said.

Statewide inconsistency is why Fletes of the ACLU points out, “Some counties do a better job.” She’s found that Sacramento County, for example, goes the extra mile to track data on the voters requesting language help, so that key precincts will have more bilingual poll workers the next election.

Meanwhile, other counties “will do what’s required by the law and nothing more.”

Technology fills the gaps

If human translation is not available, voters still might be able to count on technology to assist them.

Fifteen counties using a new state-approved vote center model will be able to rely on technology to help fill language gaps. They will have a multilingual helpline available or an iPad that connects voters to LanguageLine, which offers a Facetime-like video feed with a translator. That feature was first introduced at California’s vote centers in March and also includes American Sign Language.

Los Angeles County is among them. Mike Sanchez, a county spokesman, said he couldn’t offer numbers on bilingual poll workers, but that every center will have electronic voting machines assisting voters in 13 languages.

Los Angeles County’s interactive sample ballot also comes in different languages and has been available online. Depending on county demographics and the languages covered, some jurisdictions mailed out translated ballots that can be processed while others sent out facsimiles that can be used for reference. If voters don’t bring their ballot to a polling location, they can request a provisional ballot in their language, if that language is covered by election law.

In San Diego County, where registrar Vu said he still doesn’t know how many bilingual poll workers they will have, the county will have interpretive services available for voters via telephone and vote machines will offer audio instructions in Spanish, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Mandarin.

Those voting at home can search online for help but should be forewarned: The quality of online translations is inconsistent across the counties. Some, like Monterey County, make it easy for voters to read the entire election site in another language. Some aren’t as easy to navigate, instead relying on Google Translate, but might offer translated versions of ballots online.

Advocates step in to help

Excessive language barriers can mean citizens walk away from casting a ballot altogether. Others end up voting solely on issues covered by major media, like the presidential ticket, but not on local measures or candidates that have direct impact on their neighborhoods.

Mustafa Sahid, program coordinator for Somali Family Service of San Diego, has spent the past months registering Somali Americans to vote and engaging Somali-American citizens for the election. Because Somali is not translated in San Diego’s election materials, he often finds himself translating ballot measures for clients.

“It’s a lot of information to translate,” Sahid said.

He has seen the frustration Somali voters have in navigating elections. “The process just seemed a little bit more complex than they were expecting. So they just elected to not vote actually,” Sahid said.

Butte County set up a ballot box at a local Hmong Cultural Center after the community requested one during the primary.

“We have gotten several ballots from down there, probably around 50,” said Wyman of the registrar’s office.

“The process just seemed a little bit more complex than they were expecting. So they just elected to not vote actually.”

mustafa sahid, Somali Family Service of San Diego

As a program analyst at the Hmong Cultural Center, Charlie Xiong has seen the  Hmong-American citizens he serves give up on casting a ballot. They often look on with confusion as he walks them through the sample ballot guide printed in English.

“They don’t really know what they’re voting for,” Xiong said. “But then some, they just kind of, you know, vote anyway because they feel entitled to vote because they are U.S. citizens.”

The lawsuit won by language access advocates last year expanded voting materials to 14 Asian languages, mostly affecting Japanese, Thai, and Hindi-speaking voters. Eleven of the languages were never before covered in California.

The ACLU continues to lobby the secretary of state and counties on other language matters, arguing that protections for certain languages continue to be wrongly excluded in some precincts due to undercounts in official government data. Advocates contend an undercount excludes thousands of Arabic-speaking voters in Fresno County from translation access, with similar problems for San Diego’s Somali-speaking community.

As a result, community groups like the Council on American–Islamic Relations in Fresno are recruiting Arabic speakers for the counties.

“There’s a lot more that counties can do to recruit bilingual poll workers,” Fletes said. ”And that could be starting early. That could be and should be reaching out to community-based organizations to try to recruit bilingual coworkers.”

Charles Evans, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles, said while counties have put in noticeable effort, the pandemic seems to have stymied them. His organization relies on community poll monitors to gather feedback for counties following elections. They’ve had trouble recruiting for that, too.

“It’s difficult to gauge whether counties could have done better or whether this is the best they could get, given the pandemic,” Evans said.

This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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Michael is a reporter for CalMatters' Votebeat project. Covering immigration and diversity, his previous articles have been syndicated and translated into multiple languages via New America Media, ImpreMedia,...