Senate bill would translate California ballot initiatives into nine languages

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

In the 100 years since California first adopted the statewide initiative process, our somewhat notorious form of direct democracy, a total of 1,752 measures have attempted to qualify for the ballot allowing voters to bypass the legislative process and set policies around a variety of issues ranging from property tax (Prop 13), to gay marriage (Prop 8), to medical marijuana (Prop 215). 

More than 200 languages are spoken in California, nine of which are minority languages covered by the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA), yet initiative petitions are circulated in just one; English. English- only petitions result in the exclusion of millions of Californians from the all-important process of determining which initiatives are actually placed on the ballot. 

Somewhere in the giant stack of bills Governor Brown must either sign or veto by this Sunday is a bill that would open up this crucial part of our democratic system to California’s 6.9 million limited-English proficient (LEP) residents. 

The federal Voting Rights Act requires counties with a large population of voters whose English is limited to provide translated voting materials, such as voter registration forms, ballots, and official voter guides, in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, Hindi, Khmer, and Thai. Current law, however, does not extend the requirement to initiative or referenda materials. 

SB 1233, authored by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), would mandate the State Attorney General’s office to translate ballot initiative and reference title and summaries in all minority languages covered by the VRA, as well as require signature gatherers to carry translated copies while circulating petitions. 

“Prior to signing a ballot initiative petition, voters should be fully informed. That is not possible if the petition is written in a language the voter does not speak or understand,” said Senator Alex Padilla in a statement earlier this year. “Language appropriate ballot initiative petitions would empower voters with the information necessary to make an informed choice about signing a petition.”

Nearly half of California’s naturalized citizens are LEP, leaving them at risk to manipulation by signature gatherers. Last year Greenlining Institute, a public policy organization and sponsor of SB 1233, conducted a listening tour statewide to hear from voters how they felt about the initiative process. “In city after city concerns around language access kept being raised,” said Jose Sanchez, Greenlining Institute’s Claiming Our Democracy Fellow. “We heard numerous accounts of signature gatherers misleading LEP residents by misrepresenting the details of initiatives.”

Critics of the measure argue that it may delay petition preparation and create burdensome additional costs for the state. “This is one of the cheapest most important reforms California can make right now,” said Sanchez in response to the criticism. “The Attorney General estimates a cost of an additional $42,000 a year; that is a cost to the state of less than one penny per person to bring these voters fully into our democratic process.”

This year alone, signature gatherers circulated petitions for more than 60 different measures, 11 of which qualified for the ballot. According to proponents of the legislation, language barriers left millions of eligible voters unable to have a say in determining which issues they will be voting on come November. “This reform is so important because California’s democracy is strongest when we have the most people connected and plugged into the democratic process,” said Sanchez. 

California Forward believes in encouraging voter education and removing barriers to participation in order to build a much more inclusive democracy.  Part of California’s beauty lies in its diversity and its vibrant and representative democracy depends upon all members of California’s diverse electorate participating and engaging in the process. 


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg