by Zainab Badi

California is failing millions of eligible voters, many of them here in Oakland.

Our state’s voter turnout in the most recent election was historically low: Only 42 percent of registered voters turned out. If you include the total eligible population (that is, people who could vote but aren’t registered), the numbers sink to a dismal 31 percent casting a ballot.

A closer look shows that, compared to other groups, even lower numbers of eligible Asians and Latinos turned out. In Alameda County, only 49 percent of eligible Latino and 35 percent of eligible Asian residents voted in the 2012 general election, compared to an overall turnout of 60 percent. Language barriers may help explain this gap in registration and turnout, a gap that leaves a huge chunk of our citizenry terribly underrepresented.

With complex procedures, deadlines, and difficult state-issued voter information guides, elections can be confusing even for people who speak English fluently. The 2.6 million eligible California voters who are limited English proficient (LEP – defined as people who speak English less than very well) face even greater difficulties in trying to navigate the electoral process. In a series of community input sessions, The Greenlining Institute spoke to bilingual poll workers and ethnic community groups to learn what barriers limited English proficient communities face when trying to vote and what can be done to improve their voter experience. We’ve just published the results in a report called COMMUNITY VOICES: Improving Access to Voting for California’s Limited-English Communities.

Several participants noted that many LEP voters don’t know they can receive voting materials in their native language. Those who are aware sometimes do not know how to request these materials, while some who do obtain them find the translations to be confusing and filled with hard-to-understand jargon. Voting materials are available in ten different languages in California. The lack of awareness about this availability points to a need for greater outreach to LEP communities.

Much of what we’re doing clearly isn’t adequate. To take just one example, while one in nine eligible voters is limited English proficient and online voter registration is available in 10 languages, in the months leading up to last November’s election, just 1.4 percent of online registrants registered in a language other than English.

Oakland especially needs to close that turnout gap, as over 78,000 people in this incredibly diverse city speak English less than very well. Our residents deserve a voice in the decisions that affect them. LEP residents of the city have just as much of a stake in elections as English fluent voters, and should have access to the resources they need to exercise their democratic right in the language they are most comfortable in. With robust and competitive elections in the city, it is important that voters who don’t speak English well understand the voting process and have adequate information about the races and issues on the ballot.

Everyone deserves an equal voice in our democracy. The significant gap in voter turnout among Asians and Latinos leaves thousands of Oaklanders out of the decision-making process that impacts their lives.

Groups like Oakland Rising work hard to mobilize voters of color, including immigrants and LEP voters. We need more outreach and collaborative efforts between community groups, county election offices and the Secretary of State’s office to ensure that LEP citizens have access to the information they need to take part in the electoral process. Greenlining’s new report outlines some strategies for doing this. In a state with 2.6 million LEP citizens, we must act to ensure that these voters are informed, aware, and actively participating in our democracy.

Oakland resident Zainab Badi is the Claiming Our Democracy fellow at The Greenlining Institute.

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