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Court Rules to Expand Language Access for California’s Limited-English-Proficient Voters

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SAN FRANCISCO – The California Court of Appeal ruled Nov. 4 that Secretary of State Alex Padilla erred when he issued a directive to county election officials in 2017 that deprives tens of thousands of California voters of the language assistance to which they are entitled under state law.

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati filed suit last year demanding increased access to language assistance for limited-English-proficient voters in California.

State law requires assistance for voters in each county or precinct where 3 percent or more of the voting-age residents are members of the same language minority and lack skills to vote without language help. That assistance includes providing access to translated facsimile ballots, which voters can use as a reference while voting on an English ballot, and other translated voting materials.

The court ruled that Padilla had improperly used higher federal thresholds in determining which languages receive services, thereby substantially limiting the scope of coverage. Under the ruling, 14 Asian languages that are not currently covered under state or federal law will now be covered under state law, meaning translated facsimile ballots and other translated voting materials will be available in those languages during California’s 2020 elections.

Those 14 languages include 11 languages that have never before been covered in California. Two additional Asian languages that are currently partially covered under the state law will now see expanded language assistance.

The languages that will see new or expanded language assistance in the 2020 elections are spoken by 56,700 residents. Additional translated voting materials will available at almost 1,300 precincts across the state. Some of the language speakers most impacted by the decision include Japanese, Hindi, and Thai.

“Today’s decision will make it possible for many thousands of Californians to participate fully and equally in our democratic process,” said William Freeman, a senior counsel with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “California must continue to be in the forefront of encouraging robust voter participation by our state’s diverse communities.”

The languages that will have translated voting materials in 2020 because of the court ruling are: Bengali, Burmese, Gujarati, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Lao, Mien, Mongolian, Nepali, Tamil, Thai, Telugu, and Urdu.

The languages that will see expanded access to translated voting materials in 2020 because of the court ruling are Hmong and Punjabi.

“Language access is essential for many Californians and there’s still work to be done,” said Steven Schatz, a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. “We are proud to have helped secure today’s victory for so many limited English proficient voters.”

Plaintiffs in the case sought to have language assistance expanded to all language communities that meet state law’s 3 percent threshold and lack skills to vote without language help. Because of limitations on the definition of “language minority” in the federal law, the court’s ruling limits the victory to just Asian languages.

“We’re thrilled that many limited-English-speaking Asian American voters in California will receive translated voting assistance for the first time in 2020 under this ruling. That is voting assistance they are owed under the plain language of California state law,” said Jonathan Stein, staff attorney and program manager for voting rights and census at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. “We are disappointed, however, that the court did not agree with us that full language access is owed to all limited-English-speaking communities in California.”

The case, Asian Americans Advancing Justice v. Alex Padilla, was originally filed in San Francisco Superior Court.

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