In the 2020 election, my Watsonville family was energized and held its very first voting party. Local candidates competing for the same office visited, my cousins and I offered to translate and research for our elders, and many drove together to City Hall to turn in their ballot. But not everyone in town is as fortunate to have this type of support or access. The observable common barrier is a lack of language access.
It might surprise readers that in a place like Watsonville, that has deep and rich Latino history, the voter information guide and official vote-by-mail ballots are only made available in English. Watsonville is part of Santa Cruz County, and according to Sec. 203 of the Federal Voting Rights Act, the county is not obligated to provide Spanish in-language materials. Over the decades, the county has continued to miss the qualification threshold, and in 2021, it missed it by less than a percentage point.
The state’s language access laws help address the gap in coverage by requiring language services that are determined on a precinct basis. However, state law requires that only a “facsimile ballot,” or sample ballot, be made available at voting sites. The county has historically offered in-language voting on its accessible machines, as it will be doing so this year, and will mail the translated sample ballot to voters who have indicated a language preference on their registration form. Unfortunately, the accessible service is only offered in-person, might require re-registering to vote, and today all voters receive their ballots by mail. The state needs to simplify things for voters.
There is a bill in the legislature championed by voting rights groups like California Common Cause which I work for, AB 884 (Low and Cervantes), that would do just that: require in-language votable ballots and election materials be provided for language communities in places like Santa Cruz County. The bill would also eliminate the discriminatory exclusion of certain communities from receiving in-language election materials since Arabic and Farsi are not covered under federal or state law.
Language access goes beyond simple translations—it is also about accountability, transparency and equality. State and local officials need to ensure that all eligible voters have the right to election materials that they can understand and actually use.
Pedro Hernandez is Legal and Policy Director of California Common Cause. In 2023, he served as Co-Chair of the State Language Access Advisory Committee. He is based in Berkeley but is eager to move back to the area this year. His opinions are his own and not necessarily those of the Pajaronian.