Nguyen Nguyen is not yet a citizen but she is excited about the upcoming election. She can’t vote, but the legal permanent resident can — and will — be a poll worker.
Nguyen is among hundreds of legal non-citizen immigrants across Southern California gearing to volunteer on Election Day, June 5, thanks to a relatively new California law that allows those who hold so-called “green cards” to be poll workers.
“I’m so excited and I’m curious to see what happens. I would like to see how voting works here in the States,” said Nguyen, a 46-year-old Westminster resident who’s first name is identical to her last.
The 2013 law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Assembly Bill 817, was aimed at bringing more bilingual poll workers to assist voters who are not yet proficient in English. The law allows legal permanent residents to be poll workers but not poll inspectors, who still must be citizens.
Every election, county officials are under pressure to recruit hundreds if not thousands of people willing to spend a long day at voting sites, checking in voters, and assisting those who need help with the process. Los Angeles County, for example, has recruited some 21,700 poll workers to serve in 4,147 precincts in June. At least 24 percent of those volunteers must be bilingual in one of 16 languages, according to spokespersons from the Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office.
“In a state as diverse as California, our democracy is stronger when every citizen can cast an informed ballot,” said Rosalind Gold, a senior director with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.
But in an era of immigration-oriented politics, the law has sparked controversy.
Some argue that voters should speak English proficiently enough to cast a ballot without any help, especially if that help is coming from non-citizens.
“I don’t see any reason to have green card holders participate in the election process, even as poll workers,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that calls for lower immigration into the country.
“The fact that we need to provide so many language assistance services for voters who do not speak English well is a sad indication of our nation’s failure to ensure the proper assimilation of immigrants,” Vaughan wrote in an e-mail.
For the immigrants, however, it’s a chance to participate in the process and make a few dollars along the way.
Green card holder Cesar Washington Castello, 69, a Peruvian who lives in Laguna Niguel, said he’s working the polls this upcoming election because he’s out of work and could use the money. Stipends for working Election Day and attending required training vary in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, ranging from $110 to $140, with higher stipends for inspectors.
During the 2016 general election, Los Angeles County had 344 green card polling workers, Orange County had 114 and Riverside had 23. San Bernardino County, to date, has not recruited any legal permanent residents as poll workers.
“Our system doesn’t accommodate putting in poll workers who are not registered voters,” said spokeswoman Melissa Eickman from the elections office of the Registrar of Voters in San Bernardino County. ” We are looking at making that change and upgrading our system.”
The vast majority of bilingual poll workers across California, however, are citizens. Many are students or seniors, people like Huoy Lor, 70, a Lakewood resident born in Cambodia who became a citizen years ago and has volunteered many times.
“They always need people,” Lor said.
Others are new volunteers like Andrew Rivas, 19, a U.S. citizen recruited by the Orange County Registrar of Voters during a recent voter registration drive at his Santa Ana College campus.
“A friend did it and I thought it’d be really cool,” Rivas said. “I believe in the political process.”
California, with its many immigrant communities, poses some challenges for county election officials.
More than 2.6 million eligible voters in the state are not fully proficient in English. Asian Americans and Latino voters are least likely to turn out at the polls and most likely to face language barriers, according to a 2017 report by the Asian Americans Advancing Justice-California.
The federal Voting Rights Act was created in 1965. Ten years later, Congress amended it to include a bilingual requirement.
To receive assistance, a county must meet certain thresholds, such as having more than 10,000 citizens of voting age who have limited proficiency in English. All election information must be available in that minority language, from voter registration cards to ballots to signs and voter guides.
“It means a full translation of all election materials,” said Jacqueline Wu, community outreach manager for the Orange County Registrar of Voters.
Different counties have different federal mandates, based on U.S. Census Bureau data. In Orange County, for example, all materials must be translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean. In Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, the federal mandate is Spanish.
But there are additional California Elections laws to cover the needs of immigrant communities that, while large, are not large enough to qualify under federal coverage. That adds more languages to the mix.
“We have one bilingual Spanish worker at every polling place,” said Rebecca Spencer, Riverside County Registrar of Voters, explaining how her county meets the federal requirements. To meet the state’s mandate, Riverside County also began providing assistance in 2012 in certain precincts in Tagalog, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Korean, she said.
In San Bernardino County, officials are recruiting some 3,100 workers for 402 polling places in the upcoming election but still need some 50 people who speak Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese languages.
This year, San Bernardino County will have poll workers who speak the required languages available by phone on Election Day, in the event someone needs translation help and there’s no bilingual poll worker on site, Eickman said.
Here’s how the state law works: If three percent or more of voting age residents within a precinct belong to a minority community and have difficulty with English, then a translated copy of the ballot — a facsimile in that language — must be posted in that language at that polling place. Also, elections officials must make “reasonable efforts” to recruit poll workers who can speak that language.
And that’s where some counties fall short, according to a survey conducted during the November 2016 election by the Asian Americans Advancing Justice-California.
In counties like Riverside and San Bernardino counties, most precincts monitored did not have a bilingual poll worker for languages like Tagalog or Korean. Orange County, observers noted, had at least one bilingual poll worker in each of the precincts visited — “a strong performance,” the report noted. L.A. County, meanwhile, had “mixed success” posting bilingual poll workers.
Across 25 counties monitored, one in four precincts didn’t produce the mandated facsimile ballots in another language. The report also found that while election officials did a great job in complying with federal law, they weren’t as good about the tougher state law.
“There’s a huge stark difference between the two,” said Michelle Lim, voting rights police advocate with AAAJ in Los Angeles, a non-profit civil rights group in Los Angeles that helps Asian Americans.
Nguyen, the green card holder from Westminster, said she hopes to put her Vietnamese skills to good use on June 5.
Nguyen used to work at the U.S. Consulate in Vietnam and is familiar with the absentee ballot system for expats. Earlier this week, she went through the training, where she was surprised to learn that some voting booths are made out of carton and that voting is accessed electronically.
She was also tickled by one small thing Americans are used to getting after they cast their ballots: the stickers that read: “I voted.”
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