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COMMENTARY: Let all Californians participate in democracy

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Californians know better than anyone just how important our ballot initiative system is – after all, we’ve seen it used to take away our rights. It’s an imperfect process, but it’s in all of our interest to make it as fair and inclusive as possible. Only a system that respects the rights of all citizens can be expected to protect those rights.

Right now, millions of Californians are left out of a crucial part of that system. Happily, this major flaw can be fixed with a stroke of Gov. Jerry Brown’s pen.

Californians speak over 200 languages, but today our initiative petitions speak only one: English. That leaves millions of voters out of the process of qualifying propositions for the ballot.

Over six million voting-age Californians are “limited English proficient” (LEP). That includes nearly half of our nationalized citizens -- at least 2.1 million eligible voters whose ability to speak and read English is limited.

These voters have the same right to participate in our democracy as every other American, a simple truth enshrined in federal law by the Voting Rights Act. In counties with large numbers of LEP voters, officials are required to provide materials such as ballots and voter guides in the major languages spoken. In San Francisco, for example, officials must provide these materials in Chinese and Spanish. In Los Angeles, it’s Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese.

But the law says nothing about initiative petitions, leaving millions of registered voters with no say at all in what gets on our ballot.

That is plainly wrong. All voters should have an equal voice in our democracy. And for better or worse, ballot propositions have become California’s way of dealing with hugely important issues, from taxes to same-sex marriage. This November’s ballot will include propositions affecting everything from school funding to the death penalty.

Not only does the current system of English-only petitions exclude millions of voters, it makes the whole system more vulnerable to abuse and manipulation. This should matter to LGBT Californians, even those of us who speak perfect English.

Signature-gatherers are often paid by the signature. This gives them both an incentive to get as many as possible and a huge temptation to cut corners. There have been credible reports from California, Massachusetts and other states of petitioners using misleading or downright false pitches to get people to sign anti-gay ballot initiatives – most recently in last year’s attempt to qualify a measure to repeal California’s FAIR Education Act, which requires school curricula to include teaching about LGBT people and history.

Sadly, voters whose English is limited are frequently the target of dishonest pitches on a variety of issues. Last year, when The Greenlining Institute conducted a listening tour to hear Californians’ views on our initiative process, we heard disturbing stories from Spanish-speaking voters in Riverside: During the campaign to recall then-Governor Gray Davis, some of them had been convinced to sign petitions by signature-gatherers who said they were for a measure to improve education. Only later did they learn – from the evening news on TV – that they’d been tricked into signing recall petitions.

Nonsense like this is much easier to pull off when the voter has no easy way to check the wording on a petition and see if it matches what the signature-gatherer is saying.

Senate Bill 1233, by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), would solve this problem by making our initiative petitions available in multiple languages, just like ballots and voter guides are now. The bill has now passed the state legislature and is awaiting action by Gov. Jerry Brown.

This simple, common-sense reform will cost less than one penny per voter. Even the highest cost estimate equals less than the amount California spends on prisons every eight minutes.

SB 1233 is truly a win for every Californian. You can help to convince Gov. Brown to do the right thing by signing our online petition and calling the governor’s office at 916-445-2841. Let’s give all our communities an equal voice.

Kate Kendell, Esq., is executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Bruce Mirken is media relations coordinator at The Greenlining Institute.