LOS ANGELES (Nov. 18, 2016) — Asian Americans Advancing Justice – California (Advancing Justice-CA), composed of sister organizations Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus and Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, operated one of the nation’s largest poll monitoring efforts on Election Day, placing over 570 poll monitors in roughly 1400 polling places across Northern California, Southern California, and the Central Valley.
Advancing Justice-CA poll monitors found widespread problems with provision of language assistance and a trend of poll workers asking for identification from voters when none was required.
“In light of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump campaign and the announcement that Kris Kobach, the hard-line right-wing Kansas Secretary of State who has been a leading advocate for voter suppression laws, has been appointed to the Trump transition team and is a leading candidate for Attorney General, voting rights advocacy that ensures access for immigrant communities and historically disenfranchised voters is more important than ever,” said Aarti Kohli, Interim Executive Director at Advancing Justice-ALC.
Providing language assistance key to ensuring an accessible democracy
California has the largest number of immigrant voters in the nation and millions of voters who need some form of language assistance when voting. The state has struggled to make its elections accessible to its limited-English communities, with over 10 enforcement actions brought by the U.S. Department of Justice against California counties and cities since 2000, each for failure to provide adequate language assistance during voting. In the 2012 elections, Advancing Justice-CA poll monitors found language access problems across California. Nationally, Advancing Justice found that 45% of precincts monitored had missing or poorly displayed translated materials and 23% of precincts monitored were missing at least one Asian language-speaking bilingual poll worker.
These problems persisted in 2016, though they were less widespread. In over 60 Southern California polling places bilingual poll workers, who are required to be present under federal law at targeted poll sites, were missing. In those cases, Advancing Justice-LA contacted county election officials requesting that reserve poll workers be sent to the sites. Additionally, Southern California poll monitors regularly requested that translated ballots and sample ballots be displayed to voters as opposed to hidden under stacks of English versions.
“We have been working with election officials for the past few months on best practices for poll worker training and bilingual poll worker recruitment,” said Deanna Kitamura, Voting Rights Project Director at Advancing Justice-LA. “On Election Day, we attempted to resolve systemic problems early in the day so that those voting during the rest of the day wouldn’t face unnecessary hurdles.”
In Northern California, poll monitors found that facsimile ballots, which are translated copies of ballots mandated by state law when minority language communities exceed 3% of a precinct, were missing in over 20 polling places. Additionally, Northern California poll monitors found in countless polling places that facsimile ballots were not posted when they arrived but were posted after the problem was raised with the poll workers present. Five polling places ran out of or failed to provide translated ballots required by the Voting Rights Act and three more failed to provide translated provisional ballots.
Poll workers asking for identification from voters, risking disenfranchisement
Advancing Justice-CA poll monitors also found poll workers asking voters for identification where none was required. Voter ID laws have the power to disenfranchise the roughly 10% of the population that do not have state-issued identification, a population that is heavily weighted toward low-income people, people of color, young people, and people with disabilities. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder to gut substantial portions of the federal Voting Rights Act, the nation has seen an explosion of voter ID laws passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures.
Standing strong in the face of this trend, California law does not require identification to vote.* Despite this, our poll monitors encountered poll workers asking for identification inappropriately at thirteen polling places. At one location, the voter asserted her rights in not having to show ID and the poll worker refused to provide the voter a ballot until an advocate intervened on the voter’s behalf.
Advancing Justice-CA fears that messaging from conservative politicians and media has cemented the misconception that Voter ID is necessary to safeguard the integrity of the elections and that poll workers feel empowered to make their own judgments on which voters must substantiate their identity before voting.
“In almost all instances, elections official moved quickly to correct the behavior of their poll workers when these problems were reported,” said Jonathan Stein, head of the Advancing Justice-ALC voting rights program. “But elections officials scrambling to fix problems created by poll workers bent on determining for themselves which voters deserve extra scrutiny means that elections officials are always one step behind disenfranchisement.”
Further evaluation forthcoming on the accessibility of California’s elections to diverse communities
Advancing Justice-CA poll monitors called in hundreds of questions, concerns, and problems while in the field. Acting on those calls, staff at Advancing Justice-CA headquarters acted to solve just over 200 problems in partnership with elections officials and the Office of the Secretary of State.
In the coming days, Advancing Justice-CA will evaluate how every one of the more than 1,400 polling places visited on November 8 performed on a variety of metrics and produce detailed reports on each county’s performance with regard to voter access. Those will then be combined into a statewide report in 2017.
Advancing Justice-ALC extends its thanks to Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, who helped recruit over 150 attorneys to assist in this project.
*One very small group of California voters must show identification before they vote: first-time voters who did not provide identification when they registered.