By: Elizabeth Harte

A California appeals court ruled on November 5, 2019, that California Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, improperly used the federal Voting Rights Act population requirement, instead of state law, to determine which language minorities required language services. His 2017 directive had restricted language assistance for “tens of thousands of California voters.” This ruling will bring language service access to those who speak languages like “Japanese, Hindi, Thai, Burmese, Urdu, Hmong and Punjabi” and will result in the recognition of eleven languages that California has not previously acknowledged. The ruling affects approximately 1,300 California precincts and grants “56,000 limited-English speaking California residents” assistance, like translated voting materials, that helps them participate in the democratic process.

The issue brought before this court was whether the California Secretary of State “ha[d] misinterpreted, and thus failed to properly enforce” a portion of the state’s election code that deals with the availability of language services. This code states that “in determining if it is appropriate to provide the election materials in Spanish or other languages, the Secretary of State shall determine the number of residents of voting age in each county and precinct who are members of a single language minority, and who lack sufficient skills in English to vote without assistance” to determine whether the group totals three percent of “voting-age residents.”

While Secretary Padilla was permitted to make the determination of language services a precinct-based decision, and not a county based one, his reliance on the Voting Rights Act to interpret state law was misguided in some respects. He could use the act to interpret the term “single language minority,” which permitted him to look only to “American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives, or of Spanish heritage.” However, the Secretary’s application of the definition was incorrect. The court ruled Secretary of State Padilla had been “import[ing] the federal Act’s” five percent into state law determinations. Ultimately, he was using the Voting Rights Act coverage determinations, made by the Director of Census and the Attorney General and published in the Federal Register, to formulate his own list, on the basis that this technique was an “operational definition” of “single language minority.” This methodology conflicts with California’s mandate that language minorities that amount to three percent of “the voting-age population of an individual precinct” be provided translated ballots. The court found that this conflict was the result of coverage determinations been wrongly conflated with a terminology definition. Thus, the court held, the Secretary of State must make determinations as to whether a language minority group of “American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives, or Spanish heritage” with “limited English proficiency” make up three percent of the voting age population in a precinct before granting them language help.

While this ruling is a win for “limited-English speaking Asian American voters in California,” there is still work to be done, given the court’s approval of Secretary Padilla’s interpretation of “language minority.” Ultimately, “the court did not agree with us that full language access is owed to all limited-English speaking communities in California.”

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