Understanding the information on a voting ballot can be tough even for English speakers. For many second language learners the voting process can be so intimidating that they don’t vote, in part because of the lack of materials in their own language.
Now a group of Punjabi people in Fresno want to change that experience.
Almost every afternoon older Indian-American men from the province of Punjab gather under the shade and play cards in Victoria West Community Park in West Fresno. Deep Singh says it’s a chance to get out of the house.
“They go round by round and then you’re supposed to have some strategy in terms of which cards you’re getting rid to keep your higher ones to the end,” Singh says.
The elders are speaking Punjabi, not Hindi and that sometimes can be a problem. Singh is with the Jakara Movement, which focuses on rights for Indian-Americans. He says when they’re in their community it's easy to communicate, but when it comes time to vote it can be challenging. I pulled a few of the elders away to talk with them about their experiences in situations where knowing English fluently would be helpful.
“They’re saying their lives would vastly change because almost in every sphere they have to take somebody with them,” Singh translates for a three Punjabi men that call Fresno home. “To be able to have the autonomy to do stuff by yourself would greatly help their own standards of life.”
It’s situations like this that groups like the Jakara Movement in Fresno want to change, starting with voting materials.
“Our demands is just to make Punjabi language access just an intricate part of California life, just like every other sort of language is,” Singh says.
He wants to see materials, like voting ballots, in Punjabi. The reason materials in languages like Punjabi aren't on display in California voting places is because the U.S. Census and the Secretary of State lumped Punjabi into category of languages with 10,000 speakers or less. In California languages spoken by more than 10,000 people are supposed to have their own election materials.
In the state there are more than 100,000 Punjabi speakers and in Fresno County there are around 10,000, but do to a loophole they were lumped in with lesser spoken languages. The other problem is that the Secretary of State made the decision to offer Hindi as the language on materials for all Indian people in California even though not all Indian-American people speak Hindi. That’s why Deep Singh says bundling Punjabi with lesser spoken languages in this way was wrong.
“This is at a head in Fresno County,” says Singh. “The county with the third most Punjabi speakers. But this is a statewide problem. This is Kern County, Merced County, Sacramento County, Santa Clara County, Alameda County and even Sutter County.”
Singh hopes this will start to change when the census begins grouping languages like Punjabi in categories of their own starting this fall with two data sets. U.S. Census Survey Statistician Christina Gambino
“Having data for more languages makes it easier for businesses and services to make the right plan,” says Gambino. “Punjabi, Bengali, Telugu and Tamil have just grown so much since the last time we have updated our tables. We’ve given the tables a makeover to better reflect the population of non-English language speakers.”
After the census does this then the Secretary of State will have the opportunity to make it a requirement for counties to provide materials in Punjabi at polling places. As of now Brandi Orth, the Fresno County Clerk, says there’s no Punjabi related materials in Fresno County polling places, but when elections happen she does hire Punjabi speaking poll workers in zip codes with lots of Punjabi voters.
“They wear a special name badge saying that I speak Punjab,” Orth says. “They can help voters that need that language assistance and that way they can vote there at the polls.”
The County does present explainer ballots in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Kamai and Hindi. Orth says it wouldn’t be too expensive to include Punjabi. The Secretary of State could also require voting materials to be in Punjabi independent of census data. That’s something that the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice would like to see.
“What actually should happen is where an Indian American community exceeds the three percent threshold you have an obligation to go and find out what language they speak,” says AAAJ Staff Attorney Jonathan Stein. “If in your county they are predominantly Punjabi speakers provide translated materials and hire poll workers that speak Punjabi.”
Stein would also like to see languages like Punjabi added to a bill currently making its way through the state legislature that would ensure that translated copies of ballots, known as facsimile ballots, are more available to voters. Assembly Bill 918 would also provide training for poll workers on proper handling of these translated ballots. But the thing is Punjabi is not a language included in the bill.
“We think it's outrageous that the Punjabi speaking community as substantial as it is in the Central Valley is receiving no language assistance under current state law,” Stein says. “We think the Secretary of State and county elections officials should in the Valley should take action to correct that.”
Stein hopes all the buzz around this topic encourages Secretary of State Alex Padilla to act fast. Padilla says he’s committed to see this change sooner rather than later.
“If there’s enough Californians it's in our interest that they get the information in the language that they prefer to make informed decision when they go vote,” Padilla says. “I think the benefit certainly exceeds the cost.”
But when? To help pressure the Secretary to speed up the process Congressman David Valadao says he’s sending him a letter.
“They’re hardworking taxpayers of my community and if we’re going to spend resources and ask them to be part of society I don’t think there’s any problem with directing some of the conversation their way so they can be more involved in the American process,” says Valadao.
Back in the West Fresno Deep Singh with Jakara says his team is pressing everywhere they can to make sure his friends and elders have the opportunity to vote easily.
“By allowing people language access and the ability to participate in American civic life in a much more engaged and deeper way this could even have shakeups in California politics,” Singh says.
We’ll have to wait and see what exactly the census releases later this year and if all this pressure on the Secretary of State actually works.