SAN FRANCISCO -- Voting rights activists called on Gov. Jerry Brown to sign into law a Senate bill requiring the translation of ballot initiative petitions and recall petitions for state offices into minority languages.
“Our current initiative process with material written only in English makes it difficult for at least 2.1 million eligible voters with limited English ability to participate fully,” says San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar, who represents District 1, which has a large Asian population.
Supporters of Senate Bill 1233, authored by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-San Fernando Valley, on Wednesday held a press conference on the steps of San Francisco City Hall to present 5,000 signed appeals to be sent to Brown asking him to enact the bill.
SB 1233, now on Brown’s desk, would require the state to translate initiative titles and summaries and recall petitions for state offices into minority languages so that translations would be attached to petitions being circulated for signatures.
For example, based on the number of minority language voters in a county, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Mateo would require translation into two languages – Spanish and Cantonese. Los Angeles would need to translate into nine languages — nearly all major Asian languages and Spanish because of the significant sizes of those language groups there.
“This bill is really necessary because I know it takes time for a lot of people to learn English,” said Rosario Anaya, executive director of the Mission Language & Vocational School, which trains 300 students in English as a second language.
As required by the federal Voting Rights Act, California already translates voting materials in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Korean, Hindi, Khmer and Thai in various counties. The Act, however, does not cover initiative or proposition or state recall materials before they qualify for the ballot.
“It’s about access -- even I as an English speaker have to read the English petitions twice to understand them,” says Jeannette Zanipatin, a staff attorney for Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Imagine how tough it is for a limited English reader that our initiatives are written in just one language — English.”
Mar added that the translations “would make it harder for dishonest petition gatherers to mislead people.” Supporters of Padilla’s bill also argue that translations would actually make it easier for proponents to reach more people, instead of impede them.
Some critics charge the bill diminishes the importance of citizens knowing English.
The effort to make the state translate initiative materials was spurred by a “listening tour” that the Greenlining Institute held in 14 cities up and down the state, explains Michelle Romero, an institute program director.
“People felt left out of the initiative process because the petitions are only in English, unlike other ballot materials from the state,” adds.
Romero admits SB1233 supporters “don’t know how the governor leans” on the bill.
“Worries about the budget is always a handy excuse,” she notes, “but what we’re doing is improving voter participation, while in some states there are attempts to suppress voter participation.”
Translating initiative petition materials is “really inexpensive, about a penny a person, or less than the state spends on its prison system in eight minutes,” says Hyeon-Ju Rho, executive director of
Asian Law Caucus, countering any objections based on the state’s current budget woes.
(Photo by J.C. De Vera of Greenling Institute)