This year many Californians have reason to rejoice, especially Sikh, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Korean, Filipino and Hmong-Americans.
In January, Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced that facsimile ballots, or a posted photocopy of ballots, will now be provided in Punjabi, Hmong, Syriac, Armenian, Persian, and Arabic along with other previously determined languages in designated counties.
Facsimile ballots increase language access for immigrant voters, whose rights and security have especially been under threat.
State law mandates that by Jan. 1 of each year, the Secretary of State must determine the precincts where 3 percent or more of the voting-age residents are members of a “single language minority” and lack sufficient skills in English to vote without assistance.
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The state of California depends on the analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data provided by the California Statewide Database (SWDB) at UC Berkeley.
The results provide a data-driven picture of the changing demographics of our Valley. While Hmong is widely known as the third most spoken-language in Fresno County, trailing English and Spanish, the growing Punjabi community is fast-rising in west Fresno, Sunnyside and the east side of Clovis.
For the upcoming June elections, Fresno County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth and her staff will have to ensure that 171 precincts have facsimile ballots in Punjabi, 170 precincts in Hmong, 13 in Chinese, 10 in Vietnamese, seven in Korean, two in Cambodian/Khmer, and one in Filipino/Tagalog.
Concerns have been raised in Asian Americans Advancing Justice - California's report “Voices of Democracy: The State of Language Access in California’s 2016 Elections,” about the number of polling places in Fresno County that were missing translated facsimile ballots and translated supplementary materials in 2016.
In neighboring Madera County, 26 precincts will have facsimile ballots in Punjabi.
The increased facsimile ballots tell new Valley stories: one of the present and one of a possible future. The Valley is fast diversifying in ways that are uniquely its own. According to the census data from 2010, Fresno County has a smaller Asian population than the percentages statewide. However, the rapidly growing Punjabi and Southeast Asian communities will bring the numbers in line with broader trends in the upcoming census in 2020.
With a smaller East Asian community – Chinese, Japanese and Korean – than the Bay Area or Los Angeles, our Southeast Asian community is one striking difference and an opportunity for Fresno.
Despite Fresno hosting a nationally recognized Hmong New Year festival and having Hmong elected officials, events that bring the local communities together are still lacking.
From plays to festivals, from economic opportunities to promoting new forms of civic engagement, we need community, business, academic, and civic officials to create inter-cultural events. A kite festival that brings the city together may be one example.
An anecdote to the story of the present allows for me to provide an update on a Valley Voices article I wrote in April of last year. At the time, I decried that Punjabi was the most neglected language in the state. After providing data to federal, state, and local officials, this issue is fast being remedied.
The recent data release by the U.S. Census shows that Punjabi is the 10th most spoken language in the state. When youth come together to amplify and translate the voices of their parents and grandparents, it is heartening to see that many officials do pay attention.
So while we celebrate the change, there are other dynamics at play that may make this largely symbolic. Population shifts and technologies will change the way electoral politics are run in the future.
This year Madera County will be one of five counties, along with San Mateo, Sacramento, Napa and Nevada Counties, implementing the Voter’s Choice Act passed by the state Legislature in 2016.
In order to increase voter participation, the act mandates a new election model, allowing voters to choose how, when and where to cast their ballots by
1) mailing every voter a ballot;
2) expanding the number of days for in-person voting, though decreasing the number of voting precincts; and
3) allowing voters to cast a ballot at any vote center within their county.
Fresno is not part of the pioneering counties this year, but will be in compliance by 2020.
The demographic changes, as highlighted by the ballots, tell a story of the future of our Valley. The backgrounds of our elected officials and government representatives will begin to reflect the diversity that calls Fresno County home.
However, our shared values of community, building neighborhood life, educational excellence for our children, and economic opportunities will remain the same.
Deep Singh of Fresno is the executive director of the Jakara Movement, a youth development nonprofit and the largest Sikh volunteer organization in the United States. He holds advanced graduate degrees in Middle Eastern and South Asian history. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org