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Column: Inclusion of non-English-speaking voters needs more than translating


Election Day is fast approaching, but you probably don’t need me to tell you that. Chances are, you’ve already heard about the elections from the news, social media or a neighbor. As English speakers, this information seems almost unavoidable. You could live under a rock and still find candidates slipping flyers through the cracks. 

But do constituents with limited English proficiency share this experience? 

Limited English proficiency makes the already complicated electoral process even more difficult to navigate. Language barriers could be one reason Hispanic and Asian voters, who are most likely to be non-English speakers, consistently have the lowest voter turnout.

On top of the built-in difficulties, voting barriers are arguably worse for people with limited English proficiency. They are more likely to be impoverished, meaning people with limited English proficiency are among the most in need of government assistance. Without equitable access to election materials, they are effectively barred from having a say in policies that greatly affect their lives. 

In order to have a representative government that serves all constituents, election resources need to be available in multiple languages. 

Provisions for multilingual election resources are coded into law by the Voting Rights Act. This landmark legislation leaves out languages such as Arabic and Haitian Creole because of a historically discriminatory system of language classification. This only makes it all the more important that all voters in the upcoming municipal elections are given information in their native languages. 

This need is present even in Orange County, where 16.7 percent of residents aged five and older speak a language other than English at home. Around 37 percent of these residents do not speak English fluently. Even though they are a minority, the Orange County Board of Elections provides these residents with voting materials in multiple languages. 

In an email, the Orange County Board of Elections director Rachel Raper said the county is “committed to improving the accessibility of services to persons with limited English proficiency.” 

This commitment is substantiated by the easily navigable information in both English and Spanish about early voting and the new photo ID requirements available on the Board of Elections website.

The bilingual presence of these resources is a crucial step toward full voter participation and should be commended as such. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are sufficient to achieve this goal. 

For example, election information resources are only provided in English and Spanish on the Board of Elections website. This leaves out speakers of other languages, which make up around half of Orange County residents who do not speak English fluently. 

And even for Spanish speakers, the resources that exist tend to fall short.

"Achieving full democratic participation goes beyond the literal translation of documents and requires cultural competency," saidEmilia Ismael-Simental, the manager of civic and community participation at the nonprofit El Centro Hispano.

She said cultural competency entails “understanding how people and communities at large may approach a process like elections,” especially with regard to trusting institutions and the election process.

Cultural competency is also key in facilitating participation in other aspects of the democratic process that non-English speaking communities do not fully participate in; this includes volunteering, working at polls and even running for office. 

“It is not enough to just translate stuff,” Ismael-Simental said.  

Although the Orange County BOE provides resources such as translated materials, it falls short of cultural competency. This deficit is often made up for by grassroots community-based organizations such as El Centro Hispano and the Refugee Community Partnership. 

But even with the work that grassroots organizations put in to ensure the representation of people with limited English proficiency, there are still areas that need to be improved. 

Juan Carlos Navarro, a recently naturalized U.S. citizen, first-time voter and Spanish speaker, said that he has not received information about the elections. When asked about ways that information could better reach people in similar situations to him, Navarro suggested more publicity related to elections or that information could be delivered to houses. 

Ismael-Simental also cited the need for more poll workers who speak multiple languages to help non-English speakers through the voting process. This improvement is not only contingent upon government policies but also “widespread education and encouragement of the community to be involved,” she said.  

So, action to address the issue of language accessibility in elections is not only limited to governments and nonprofits; it’s something that individuals can contribute to as well. Whether it's volunteering at polls, helping people with limited English proficiency access election information or donating to nonprofits that work with these communities, everyone can work together for equal democratic participation. 

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Providing meaningful language access is a complex task. But it’s a task that we must not shy away from because it is a key aspect of our democracy. We can all work together to guarantee that all people, regardless of their English proficiency level, are well informed and full participants in the upcoming elections.


@dthopinion |