Cambodian community speaks up about voter information

150 150 Michelle Romero

This article was originally published March 28th, 2013 by the Greenlining Institute. 

On March 25, Greenlining’s Claiming Our Democracy team hosted a community input session on improving the state voter guide with Cambodian voters in Santa Ana. In 2012, the language spoken by most Cambodians, Khmer, was added to the list of languages into which voting materials must be translated in California. So what did these voters think?

The official state voter guide is the single piece of voter information that (supposedly) every voter receives prior to an election. The problem is, well “it’s complex,” “confusing,” and written in “legalese,” just to name a few complaints from voters.

Let’s just say that language access is more than mere translation.

Political vocabulary like “ballot proposition” or “open primary” doesn’t always have a direct translation, and can actually make matters worse if there is not sufficient context or explanation given in those languages. Participants in our session also shared that the Khmer used for translation was not the Khmer they know and use. The Khmer used for translation is far more dense and academic than everyday language.

Starting to sound familiar? This isn’t a problem just for Cambodian voters. English language voter guides are also written in a level of English that is inconsistent with the average reading level of most adults. What ever happened to plain language?! Voter guides weren’t meant to intimidate the masses.

Our communities deserve more than just providing materials in multiple languages, they deserve materials in language that they understand and that will allow them to make a truly informed decision. And if we don’t get it right in English, the problems are multiplied when the materials are translated.

The Greenlining Institute, in partnership with The Future of California Elections Collaborative, will present a set of recommendations to the Secretary of State later this year, based on the feedback we receive from this session and similar input sessions we’re holding around the state. Our next stop on the tour is talking with Filipino voters in San Mateo County.

We believe that by working in partnership with other civil rights, good government and election groups, we don’t have to accept the status quo — we can actually start to identify solutions to these problems. And perhaps, our voter guides might start speaking our language, eh?

Have something to add to the conversation? Leave us a comment or email to find out how you can participate in an upcoming input session.


Michelle Romero

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