New Bill Expands Voting Rights Through Improved Language Access

AB 884 dismantles language barriers in elections, allowing diverse voters to fully participate

Sacramento, CA — California Common Cause and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus announced the introduction of their co-sponsored legislation AB 884, authored by Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Cupertino), to increase equity and meaningful access to voting for immigrants and voters with limited English proficiency. AB 884 improves the quality of language access support required by law for voter registration and voting and expands language access protections to include more language communities in California than ever before. 

“Language barriers prevent California from reaching its highest potential with a fully inclusive, multiracial democracy,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause. “Our democracy is the most representative when all voters can access election materials and cast a ballot in their preferred language.”

California leads the nation in language diversity, with 43.9% of households speaking a language other than English at home, and nearly 3 million eligible voters who identify as being limited English proficient on the census. Despite the state’s flourishing cultural landscape, outdated and inadequate language laws hinder far too many Californians from fully participating in their democracy. 

Though the language assistance required under the federal Voting Rights Act is comprehensive, the size threshold a language community must meet within a county for voters to receive language assistance under federal law is high, leaving a number of smaller language communities without access to the support they need. The state law’s language assistance threshold is much lower, but provides far fewer useful services and protections and no longer fits with California’s vote center model and heavy vote-by-mail approach to elections. 

Further, federal and state language assistance both currently exclude certain language communities, leaving speakers of Amharic, Armenian, Arabic, Russian, Somali, and other languages with no guaranteed assistance. When voters are denied the language assistance they need, they are denied an equal experience in casting a ballot. 

“Whether we speak Korean, Hmong, or Arabic, most Californians believe that for democracy to work for all of us, we must ensure every eligible Californian can register and cast their ballot. Asian Americans are more likely than any other group to cite language barriers as the reason they aren’t voters, but we know that when people can find election materials in the language they use, more people become voters,” said Deanna Kitamura, who leads the Asian Law Caucus’ voting rights program. “With AB 884, California can embrace our state’s full diversity and give many more communities equal weight in our democracy.” 

Research and data show that robust language assistance increases voter registration and turnout among communities with limited English proficiency. By meeting Californians where they’re at, this long-needed legislation ensures that immigrant voters have equal access to the ballot and an equal say in California’s future. 

Under AB 884, California’s Secretary of State would be required to identify language needs by creating a list of all languages spoken by at least 5,000 voting age individuals in the state, and languages spoken by at least 100 voting age individuals in each county. Voter registration and election materials would then be translated into the languages which meet the statewide threshold, and provided to voters with an indicated language preference. The Secretary of State would also be required to provide robust language assistance, including a toll-free language assistance hotline and funding for county language access coordinators in especially high-need areas. 

Counties would be required to similarly translate voter registration and voting materials and provide them to voters in the identified languages needed in the county. AB 884 would finally provide translated votable ballots to the smaller language communities that are not eligible for the protections of the federal Voting Rights Act because they do not meet the size thresholds of the federal law. It would also ensure that speakers of Amharic, Armenian, Arabic, Russian, Somali, and other languages currently excluded from federal and state language access protections receive the protections of the state law for the first time.

Counties would also be required to increase outreach and engagement regarding available language assistance and provide additional support, like a language accessibility advisory committee and a dedicated webpage for translated materials.

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