Poll worker bill headed to state Senate floor

Poll worker bill headed to state Senate floor

Heather L. Wood

The state Senate is set to consider a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, that would allow non-citizens to serve as poll workers during elections, which its supporters say will increase voter access for non-English speakers.

If passed by the Senate, Bonta's AB 817 would allow green card holders to work at the polls and provide language assistance services on Election Day. Current law bars nonvoters from working the polls on election days; legal permanent residents lack the right to vote.

Proponents of the bill believe it will help protect the voting rights of non-English-proficient Californians, facilitate smoother interactions at the ballot box, and help counties improve compliance with federal law.

“As citizens, eligible California voters who are not fully proficient in English have a right to make fully-informed voting decisions on Election Day. AB 817 helps ensure that our state’s voters have the resources necessary to participate fully in our democratic process,” Bonta said.

Bonta also said he hopes AB 817 will encourage green card holders to get involved in civic affairs.

The Asian Law Caucus, Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund are co-sponsors of the bill, one of 19 sponsored by the former Alameda city councilman. The Assembly approved the bill, 49-23, on May 23 on a largely party-line vote. The bill has no formal opposition.

California is home to the most linguistically diverse electorate in the country, with more than 200 languages spoken by the state's residents. According to the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute, nearly half of the state's citizens age 5 and older have limited proficiency with English and almost 10 percent of California households are considered linguistically isolated, meaning that everyone 14 and older in the household speaks limited or no English. According to Bonta's office, an estimated three million California voters face language-related obstacles to exercising their right to vote.

Both the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 exist to safeguard the voting rights of American citizens. Federal law requires counties to provide not just bilingual ballots but also language assistance at the polls when five percent of the population does not "understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process." This has been the law since Congress expanded the Voting Rights Act in 1975. But voting rights advocates believe there are deficiencies in some local jurisdictions’ compliance with these laws.

Alameda County provides additional services and voting materials in Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese, the Registrar of Voters web page says.

Bill Ong Hing, a law professor and adviser to the Asian Law Caucus, said the bill is good public policy.

“I think it's an important piece of legislation because many voters need language assistance, given the language diversity of qualified voters,” Hing said. “(Legal permanent residents) are clearly eligible to work in the United States, so hiring them as poll workers is not a problem constitutionally, and is a good public policy decision because they may have the language capabilities that may be necessary.”

The League of Women Voters of Northern California also supports the bill.

“We are excited about being able to both increase the number of multilingual poll workers, and help people on the path to citizenship be engaged in their communities,” said Helen Hutchinson, a member of the League's state board and president of its Oakland chapter.