Preeti Vissa: Democracy: Is California About to Make History?

For better or worse, California’s ballot initiative system sets national trends. From Proposition 13, which cut property taxes and set off a nationwide tax revolt in 1978, to medical marijuana two decades later, my state regularly leads the way.

And California’s version of citizen democracy may be about to get a lot more inclusive. Considering the efforts at voter suppression going on in so many other parts of the country, this is a breath of fresh air.

Today, millions of California voters have no say in a crucial part of that process: deciding what gets on the ballot in the first place. That’s because while the citizens of this incredibly diverse state speak 200 languages, our initiative petitions speak only one: English.

This is not a trivial problem. We have millions of naturalized citizens, including me and my immediate family: people from Asia, Latin America and all over the world who have put down roots in the Golden State.

About half of them, some 2.1 million eligible voters, don’t speak or read English well. Thanks to the federal Voting Rights Act, their right to vote is protected. And voting materials such as ballots and the official state voter guide are prepared in nine different languages — Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, and Vietnamese — to ensure that these citizens have the information they need to cast an informed vote.

But existing law doesn’t cover initiative petitions. As a result, millions of “limited English proficient” voters have essentially no say in deciding what they and their fellow citizens get to vote on. Worse, they may be subject to exploitation by dishonest signature-gatherers who misrepresent the contents of a petition.

That’s not just a theoretical concern. Last year, when my colleagues conducted a listening tour of California communities to get folks’ opinions of the initiative process, Spanish-speaking voters in Riverside, just east of Los Angeles, told of precisely such experiences.

But all of this may be about to change. Legislation now on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk, called S.B. 1233, would have the state translate initiative petitions into all the languages covered by the Voting Rights Act. As I write this, the governor hasn’t said whether he will sign the bill.

This is a simple reform, and the cost is trivial – literally less than California spends on its prison system in eight minutes. Sadly, some have tried to put a partisan spin on it, claiming it’s some sort of Democratic conspiracy or, bizarrely, that letting voters read petitions in their own languages would be “an extra burden to our citizens.”

Balderdash. This is an easy, inexpensive way to bring more of our citizens into the democratic process, and Gov. Brown should sign it into law immediately.

If you’d like to send Gov. Brown a message encouraging him to sign SB 1233, please sign our online petition.

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