skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

California Voter Registration Website Now Available In 10 Languages

April 23, 2014 1:22 p.m.


Lori Shellenberger, Director, American Civil Liberties Union of California's Voting Rights Project.

Chris Wilson, Civic Engagement Director, Alliance San Diego.

Related Story: California Voter Registration Website Now Available In 10 Languages


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. It may not be on the top of everyone's calendar, but there is another election coming up. There is a primary election this June, and the last day to register for that election is May 19. In effort to raise voter participation in the state, California has just added eight more languages to its online voting registration site. And it has also made the site more accessible to people with disabilities. The question is, will those improvements to the website actually increase voter turnout in our increasingly multicultural state? I would like to welcome my guests, Lori Shellenberger is Director of the ACLU of California's Voting Rights Project, and Lori, welcome.

LORI SHELLENBERGER: Good afternoon, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Chris Wilson is Director of Civic Engagement for Alliance San Diego, thank you for coming in Chris.

CHRIS WILSON: It is good to be here, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Lori, the ACLU advocated for the language additions to the site, why where the new languages needed?

LORI SHELLENBERGER: Online voter registration launched in California 2012, but only in English and Spanish. What most people don't realize, is that Asian Americans are the fastest-growing demographic in the state of California. And there are more than 1 million Asian-Americans who aren't as comfortable in English as they are in their native language. So we advocated for the expansion of online registration into eight Asian languages that would make voter registration as easily accessible as to those speaking Spanish.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm going to ask you what those languages are, are you prepared for that?

LORI SHELLENBERGER: I have a list, yes. It is Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Tagalog or Filipino, Thai, and Vietnamese.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How did those languages correspond with the growing population of California?

LORI SHELLENBERGER: The reason those languages were chosen is that under the federal voting rights act there is actually a provision that requires jurisdictions to offer voting materials in certain languages if the population needs a certain formula. So that is how, these languages meet that threshold in California.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how does California rank in voter registration?

LORI SHELLENBERGER: That is the sad part, and that is why it is an exciting day in California. We have this expanded opportunity, California ranks forty-fifth in the nation for voter registration, which is thought shocking to many people as we think of our state being politically active and we're out there voting and legislating by ballot initiative. But in fact there are 8 1/2 million Californians who are eligible to vote and are not registered.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do we know why that is?

LORI SHELLENBERGER: It is unclear, I think voter registration has had a lot of obstacles, one of which has been language. I was explaining to Chris earlier that it is really the equivalent of a literacy test if you go to that register to vote and you can not read the voter registration card, right? So there are a lot of barriers, voter registration isn't really something that is necessarily readily available to people. It is why we have laws in place now to make voter registration part of the some of the processes that exist in the state, when we go to the DMV for example. And now being able to do it when you're at home or on your smart phone, it will make it even more easy for people.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Chris Wilson, if more voters from minority communities registered to vote, does it automatically follow that more people in those communities will vote?

CHRIS WILSON: I think that more people in those communities will vote, but I don't think it will be significant change in the voting patterns just because people register.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why do you say that?

CHRIS WILSON: We know that there are about 30% of people in the county who don't vote, and more people registering is a good thing to drive up engagement. But those voters then have to be educated and engaged and motivated to vote, registering just one step. It is not the end all be all. We have to engage those voters and give them information about why they should vote, and what is on the ballot, and how important their voices in determining San Diego's future.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What are some of the barriers that could keep someone from an underrepresented community from voting?

CHRIS WILSON: Language is one. Language is a huge barrier. Lori has already talked about that. Another is the moving of polling places, voters who are newly registered don't automatically get told where to vote, so if they miss the County voting information card that comes in the mail, that tells them where voting place is, they have no idea where to vote. And finding that information is not as easy as you would think, especially if you speak another language.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly. And access to polling places, being able to wait in line to cast a ballot, is that all wrapped up in the problem? Basically a lot of people just say I do not want to do this.

CHRIS WILSON: Right, it is part of the problem and also not going knowing the requirements to vote. A lot of times first time voters can be asked for identification, that does not mean they have to have a drivers license or anything, but they have to be asked. If people don't know that, and there are a lot of things that happen when you go to vote, where people are just unaware of it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What if there is a movement to make some elections mail in only? Do you think that might help people who don't normally vote, or who just typically don't take an interest? Would it make it easier for them to sign up for mail-in ballot and just mail it in whenever there's election?

CHRIS WILSON: I don't know if it makes it easier for them, to be honest with you. I know that it makes it easier for person like me who votes all of the time. And it's easier for person like me who is looking for a mail-in ballot. But suppose you are a first-time voter just registered a month ago, and nobody told you that your mail-in ballot will be sent to you within thirty days of the election. Then you're not looking for it and if you are not the person whose name is on the mailbox, and the person checks the mail and they don't know you're looking for it, it could be days before they tell you. There are still some barriers even when they talk about mail-in voting.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What kind of voter outreach works, Chris?

CHRIS WILSON: Direct in language peer-to-peer voter outreach is a method that we found most effective for getting people to turn out to vote. When we knock on somebody's door, if we speak the language that they speak, natively, then there's a higher success rate that they will number one, talk to you, and number two, understand the importance of the message that you are trying to relate to them. Sometimes we use phones and phone banking. That is also an effective method, because we know that some voters don't generally get called by candidates or people pushing issues on the ballots. So it is important for us to be out there filling the gap, and letting them know where to vote and when to vote, and some of the things that they will see on the ballot.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Lori, as you were mentioning briefly in the beginning, it is getting easier to access voter registration materials. People can sign up at the DMV as you mentioned, where else can they sign up, or go online? Access their smart phone to vote and some kids do that by registering for college now, right?

LORI SHELLENBERGER: Right, many universities are offering voter registration at the end of the class registration process. There is a federal law that requires all agencies that offer public assistance or that serve people with disabilities, that they include voter registration in the services that they offer. And we just settled, came to a settlement with Covered California. The state's new affordable care act agency. Pursuant to an agreement that we reached with them a few weeks ago, they are mailing voter registration cards to more than 4 million individuals who enrolled in health care coverage, through the first open enrollment period. And they will moving forward offer voter registration every time someone applies for healthcare coverage through Covered California, which is very exciting because these are some of the same people that we are looking for the people, the people who slipped through the cracks. They are the people who have been excluded from our healthcare process, excluded from our democracy, and we're looking at ways to make these much more accessible.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: These are exactly the same people who might have been affected by the digital divide, and not have access to internet or smart phone. Do you meet many people who are not being able to access even an online registration because they cannot get online?

CHRIS WILSON: Yes we are, especially when you look at the older generation. Some of them are afraid of computers and they are not trusting computers or internet. They don't want to do anything that requires them to enter any information on the computer. Then it becomes necessary for someone to knock on the door or have a voter registration card in hand, to be able to fill that out and in turn that in for the elderly person.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That sounds awfully time intensive, that kind of one-on-one thing that you're describing. How do you organize that? How do you get that together?

CHRIS WILSON: Well we start early, and we use a large team of volunteers and canvassers to get the outreach that we need to be successful.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Lori, some people might feel that a voter in the US should know enough English to fill out a voter registration form. I am sure that you have heard that before, why shouldn't that be a requirement?

LORI SHELLENBERGER: That is something that we have never required, and every US citizen who is eighteen years or older has the right to vote in this country. And that was a long fought battle as we all know, and we do not have, just as someone should not to read to vote, they also are not required to be proficient in English because for some people that is complicated. And if you can even think about it what it is like to try and read a ballot initiative for those people who vote regularly, in English, in your language, and understand what that actually means and then to do that when English is not necessarily your first language can be a real barrier. Those people should not be excluded from our democracy, they should not be excluded from voting on who makes decisions about their children's education or makes decision about day-to-day things that impact their day-to-day life.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So, someone who's native language is Hindi and they are a US citizen and they see a ballot of the initiative like that, is there going to be someone there who can translate that for them? Or is that a rarity?

LORI SHELLENBERGER: If they live in a jurisdiction where that jurisdiction is required and there are enough people that speak Hindi in that jurisdiction, then they are required to provide all voting materials in that language. Ballots available, translators available, and here in San Diego County our registrar of voters work very hard for every election to recruit bilingual poll workers in those languages which in San Diego County are Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Spanish.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both a parting question and that is, what is the next step that you would like to see taken to make voting more accessible? Let me go to Lori first.

LORI SHELLENBERGER: I think the one thing that was kind of underlying everything that Chris and the battle that we both fight is a lack of information for voters. And still starting with civic education, we are not developing voters where people understand the significance that voting has on your life and I think that there is a lot of work that we can do as a state to ensure that people from a very young age are being educated about how important it is to actually participate in our democracy.


CHRIS WILSON: Well I want to piggyback on what Lori said, because I think that education is a key but also informational. We all know without a shadow of a doubt when elections are taking place in Mexico, and that is because the government plays an active role in letting its Mexican citizens know that election is coming. I think our government should have the same role. When there's an election coming, there should be PSA's and advertising on buses, park benches, all over the city and all over the county, this is election day is June 3, please vote. Then we have a democracy that is being fully engaged by the citizens, and everyone has a role in making decisions at that point.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I guess that is my cue to tell everyone again that voter registration, the last day to register for the upcoming primary in June is May 19. I would to thank my guests so much, Lori Shellenberger Director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project and Chris Wilson, Director of Civic Engagement for Alliance San Diego, thank you both.