California’s Napa County Must Print Ballots in Spanish
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A sign of the times is how another Mexifornia county (out of 58) is now required to provide ballots in Spanish, as required by the Voting Rights Act. Napa is one of 27 counties in the state so encumbered with the extra expense of producing non-English voting materials.


The reason is the increased Hispanic population in Napa, as enumerated in the 2010 Census, which identified more than 44,000 as Hispanic. That’s 32.2 percent of the population, up from 26.8 percent in 2000.

Interestingly, a 2010 Rasmussen poll found that 58 percent of likely voters favored English-only ballots, and 84 percent thought English should be the official language.

Language diversity on ballots does not come cheap. The estimate present in the following article is an additional 25 percent in printing costs, although a dollar amount is not specified.

New Napa County voting materials will be in English and Spanish, Vallejo Times-Herald, March 18, 2012

Karime Jacobo of Napa said she’ll likely request her voting material come to her in Spanish, even though she speaks English well.

Jacobo has that option because this year, for the first time, Napa County voters can get their ballots and other election material either in English or Spanish. Solano County still prints its election material exclusively in English, though that’s unlikely to last.

“My vocabulary isn’t that good in political issues and I feel I understand those things better in Spanish,” Jacobo said.

A new federal list issued in October, requires 248 cities and towns nationwide to add other languages to their election material, according to local county election officials.

More than 1 in 18 jurisdictions must now provide material like pre-election publicity, voter registration and absentee ballots as well as Election Day ballots, in various foreign languages.

Napa County Registrar of Voters John Tuteur said data collected between 2008 and 2009 determined that the county has met the demographic criteria requiring voter information printed in Spanish. The Department of Justice makes that determination based on this data, Tuteur and Solano County Registrar of Voters Ira Rosenthal said.

“Some counties have up to seven or eight languages, but Napa County has only one additional language,” Tuteur said. “It’s based on census data collected in something called the American Community Survey.”

Solano County’s ballots and other voter information are printed only in English, although Rosenthal said his office had expected the county to make the federal list this year.

“No group in Solano County meets the threshold to require the information be printed in any language other than English, though we’re assuming we will at some point, probably in Spanish and possibly Tagalog, is what we’re anticipating,” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal said whenever new languages are added, the printing process becomes more expensive.

“It adds complexity and cost to elections, anyway it’s done,” he said.

The company that ordinarily prints Napa County’s voting material employs certified translators who will convert it into Spanish, Tuteur said. He said he estimates this will add about 25 percent to the typical printing costs. 

The federal guidelines suggest municipalities that must produce multi-language election materials, create them in an English/second language format, as opposed to printing all the languages on one document, or separate documents for English and the other languages, Rosenthal said.

“Most print an English/Spanish, or English/Chinese, or what-have-you ballot, sample ballot and other material. The law says that in requiring voters to request a ballot or voting machine in a language other than English, the secrecy of the ballot could be lost,” he said.

“A single-language (ballot) goes against the flow but is not necessarily wrong,” Rosenthal said. “I’m sure (Tuteur) is trying to balance the law with the cost of complying with it.”

Tuteur calls the lost secrecy argument “a bunch of hooey.”

“The machines don’t care what language a ballot is in. They’re just counting papers with marks on them,” he said.

Tuteur said the most logical and cost-effective way to approach the issue in Napa County is to print material in Spanish for those who say they need it. He said he sent a survey to each of the county’s 68,000 registered voters asking which language they’d like their ballot printed in. So far, about 500 have requested Spanish, and Tuteur said that figure may climb as high as 700. Those voters will get all subsequent material, including statewide and national election information and ballots, in Spanish, he said.

“We created this survey because we have determined it is more voter-friendly and less expensive to produce election materials in English or Spanish, rather than producing (it) in both languages at once,” he said. “Bilingual election materials can be confusing and have higher printing and postage costs.”

But only by knowing voter language preferences can county voting officials “provide separate Spanish election materials to satisfy the requirements of the federal Department of Justice Voting Rights Division that monitors our compliance,” Tuteur said.

Since the material is offered only in English or Spanish, if someone does not respond to the survey, English is assumed to be the preferred language, he said. From now on, citizens who register or re-register to vote in Napa County can specify which of those two languages they prefer.

While few would argue against American citizens being afforded the opportunity to vote without language being a barrier, several people interviewed for this article question the process by which the need for another language is determined.

It is also unclear how accurate answers to a written questionnaire about literacy might be. Illiteracy is determined for this purpose by someone not having more than a fifth-grade education, though questions have been raised over how the government knows if literacy might not have been achieved between grade five and adulthood.

There has been some backlash to the Spanish language ballots coming to Napa County, said Tuteur, who recently responded to a letter critical of the practice. In his response, Tuteur explained that the latest census survey found “more than 5 percent of Napa County’s voting age citizens ‘belong to the Spanish language minority group and are limited-English proficient,’” he wrote. That survey also showed the number of voting age citizens with only limited English proficiency and with less than a fifth-grade education is higher than the national rate, he said.

Of the surveys Tuteur sent out to determine how many voters need material in Spanish, some 75 so far have come back with comments on them, he said. And though he hasn’t read them all, the sampling he’s seen are all opposed to the Spanish-language ballot, Tuteur said.

The surveys are due March 23, and Tuteur said he’ll disclose in April the total of Spanish-language ballot requests.

“The comments tend toward the negative,” he said. “Like, ‘why are we spending this money?,’ and ‘why isn’t English the official language?’”

There have been fewer than 10 phone calls, so far, but they, too, were negative, he said.

“None is saying ‘it’s about time you did this,’” he said.

“The primary thing I hear is that their immigrant parents or grandparents had to learn English and got no special treatment,” Tuteur said. “But (the law now says) that all American citizens regardless of language proficiency, should be able to cast a ballot in a meaningful, informed way. That’s my interpretation.”

Some elected officials and other voters express a wide range of views on the topic.

“I think it’s good,” American Canyon Mayor Leon Garcia said of the language option. “It certainly enables more folks to participate in the election process. (The law is) based on a realization that no matter where we come from, we want people to participate in the election process.”

Vallejo City Councilman Bob Sampayan said he thinks the practice is more exclusionary than inclusive.

“My first thought is that if it’s going to be in Spanish, maybe you should include Tagalog, Vietnamese, Hmong, and any number of languages,” Sampayan said. “One side of me says people who do vote and respond to these questionnaires are good citizens and want to do their civic duty and vote. But, it does make me wonder. And if we’re going to do it in one language, we should do it in all the languages of the demographics that are represented in our community, irrespective of the numbers.”

Sampayan said he realizes that including in all printed election material every language spoken in Solano County would “get pricey,” and suggests that since it’s impractical to do it in all languages, “maybe it should just be in one, and that should be English.”

Like Sampayan, Jacobo, said she thinks all eligible voters should be able to vote in a language they’re comfortable with, no matter how many others in their area speak the same language they do.

“They should be able to get the information in their own language online or by some other means,” she said.

Benicia resident Beth Aldredge Garfinkel’s opinion is stronger, still.

“Come to the U.S.; live here; become a citizen… but if you can’t speak and / or read the language, you have no business voting on important issues” Garfinkel said. “How can you even understand the current situation if you can’t speak / read the language?”

On the other hand, Mary Ann Buggs of Vallejo said she thinks that making people feel welcome and included is the least we can do.

“My job (as a human being) is to help my fellow human and if speaking Spanish helps to do that, then so be it,” she said. “We all need to do what we can to help each other. We are all different and it doesn’t take much time or effort to learn or listen to somebody else’s story. I hope that Napa County’s efforts result in their residents feeling more involved and empowered in their city. I hope that for everybody. Apathy is the biggest enemy of democracy.”

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