What do you think the reaction would be if someone tried to keep at least 2.1 million eligible California voters from exercising their democratic rights?
Chances are Californians would be outraged, just as citizens of Florida, Pennsylvania and other states are angry right now over efforts that seem meant to keep disenfranchised groups from participating in democracy. But right now, California excludes millions of citizens from a key part of our democratic system: ballot initiative petitions.
Fortunately, a simple bill now awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature would fix this problem.
Californians speak more than 200 languages, but today our initiative petitions speak only one: English. That leaves millions of voters out of the process of qualifying propositions for the ballot.
More than 6 million voting-age Californians are “limited English-proficient.” That includes nearly half of our nationalized citizens — at least 2.1 million eligible voters whose ability to speak and read English is limited.
These voters have the same right to participate in our democracy as every other American, a principle the Voting Rights Act has enshrined in federal law. In counties with large numbers of voters who are not fully proficient in English, officials are required to provide materials such as ballots and voter guides in the major languages spoken.
The languages covered include Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese.
Although these millions of citizens come from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities, they share one thing in common: Though they are allowed to vote and have voting materials in their own languages, our system of English-only petitions gives them no voice at all in what gets on our ballots. They are cut out of one of the most critical pieces of our democracy.
Think about that for a minute. This November alone, ballot propositions will cover critical issues such as the taxes we pay, funding for education, the death penalty and car insurance rates. This system is supposed to be about citizen democracy, providing a way for ordinary Californians to get things done when legislators can’t or won’t.
And yet millions of our citizens are deprived of any say in what issues we get to vote on.
That may be about to change. Senate Bill 1233, by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, would make our initiative petitions available in multiple languages so that voters who speak a different language can still be heard. The bill has now passed the state Legislature and is awaiting action by the governor.
This is a simple, common-sense reform, and one that’s surprisingly inexpensive. It would cost the state less than one penny per person to bring these voters into our democratic process. Put another way, the highest estimate of the cost equals less than six hours’ worth of tolls on the Golden Gate Bridge.
SB 1233 is good for all of us, even if we read and speak English perfectly. It will strengthen our whole democracy by helping immigrants participate in our system in a way that fosters integration and a desire to be engaged in our government. And it will make it harder for dishonest signature gatherers to mislead voters who are still learning English into signing something they don’t fully understand. That’s good for all of us.
SB 1233 is truly a win for everyone who lives in California, and all it needs is Brown’s signature. Let’s strengthen our democracy and give all of our communities an equal voice.
Orson Aguilar is executive director of The Greenlining Institute.