Californians who speak Punjabi, Hmong, Syriac, Armenian, Persian and Arabic will now have the option of requesting a facsimile ballot in their language when they go to vote. A facsimile ballot is a laminated copy that voters can refer to as they fill out an English ballot.
The change is the result of new, more detailed data that California Secretary of State Alex Padilla requested from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Under state law, if there are precincts where more than 3 percent of voting-age adults speak a minority language, the secretary of state can require facsimile ballots in those languages.
Punjabi Sikh and Hmong communities in the Central Valley are delighted with the change.
“We have over 40,000 Hmong people that live here,” said Fresno Center for New Americans Executive Director Pao Yang. “So to us, it’s a big win. It’s an acknowledgment that we exist.”
Yang says Hmong people have always found ways to vote, asking their children for help, but they’ve also had questions.
“'Does our vote count because they don’t have it in our language? Does it matter?' So now to have a ballot in Hmong, it solidifies what we’ve been saying and what we’ve been educating them on about their voices, and why they should vote, and how important it is for them to vote," Yang says.
Punjabi, the native language of many in the Sikh community, is another new language available this year. Punjabi used to be lumped into a category with “other Indic languages,” making it hard for advocates to point out geographic regions where Punjabi speakers meet the state’s threshold.
“Punjabi is the most unknown language in the state,” said Deep Singh, executive director of Jakara Movement, a Sikh community organization. “I think one of the reasons is because most of the communities live in Central California. So I think it was just off the radar because these are more rural counties."
Singh says many Punjabi speakers came from agricultural backgrounds in India and found it natural to settle in rural areas where farming is prevalent. Now, many Sikhs work in the transportation industry, trucking goods up and down the state.
“Punjabi Sikhs tend to be almost political beasts in their nature,” Singh said. They want to vote, but often have lower rates of English proficiency compared with other Asian-American communities. That made it hard for them to access the ballot before this change.
While both Singh and Yang agree the new announcement is a step in the right direction, their organizations will now be working diligently to educate their communities about the new rules and ensure that precincts comply.