Engaging Non-English Speakers for a More Equitable Democracy

Article In The Thread
New America / Karin Hildebrand Lau on Shutterstock
July 5, 2022

American democracy should provide equal representation to all residents, regardless of where they live, their partisan affiliation, or the language they speak. Unfortunately, our electoral system falls short on this promise. As the flaws in our political institutions have become impossible to ignore in recent years, more Americans are taking note — and taking action. Electoral reforms like ranked-choice voting and other innovations aimed at strengthening civic engagement are spreading across the country, and organizations like Democracy Rising are working with local communities to meet this moment of opportunity.

Democracy Rising is a non-profit that works directly with community groups advancing democracy reform to build effective organizing, education, and advocacy strategies and to ensure just implementation. Co-directors Maria Perez and Grace Ramsey are two of the country's foremost experts on ranked-choice voting (RCV), and they've been partners in the Political Reform program’s efforts to expand RCV research and the national conversation about electoral reform.

Beyond just ranked-choice voting, Democracy Rising supports a range of activities to promote a healthier, more equitable democracy. In this Q&A, we speak with co-director Maria Perez about the organization’s recent efforts to engage different language communities to gain insight into how these groups think and talk about democracy. Here she details that research, sheds light on common misconceptions about non-English speaking communities, and envisions what a true multicultural, multilingual democracy could look like in America.

Language justice is a core part of your work. What is language justice?

In most countries, being bilingual or trilingual is viewed positively. In the United States, however, there’s a different attitude toward people who speak languages other than English. You speak louder to them, infantilize them, and just assume that they don’t have intellectual capacity. Language justice is the exact opposite. It’s based on the idea that people who are not English speakers are full of wisdom and brilliance and have a lot to contribute to our culture, society, and policy. It requires the recognition that people who are not English speakers have knowledge to share. Language justice is making sure we create avenues for people who speak languages other than English to participate fully in our society, without barriers.

What are some of the challenges that non-native English speakers face today in civic life?

We do have systems to ensure that things like ballots and election information are available in multiple languages, based on what languages are spoken in a given jurisdiction. I’m glad that those laws are in place, but it takes more than the bare minimum. In my experience, many jurisdictions use Google Translate or other basic online translation platforms to translate English-language materials directly into other languages. They can check the box, but it’s not adequate. These translations may convey the information, but not in a way that makes sense to the intended audience, in terms of culture or style of communication. To non-English speakers, these mediocre translations make it clear that these materials were not made for them.

Another barrier relates to civic engagement of non-English speakers. Public meetings, from city council meetings to legislative hearings, are typically held only in English and during work hours, which excludes many people, including many who speak other languages. With public meetings, you can sometimes request translation or interpretation, but it’s an ordeal — it basically requires that the person who is requesting language access knows how to navigate, in English, the internal bureaucracies of a jurisdiction.

At Democracy Rising, we support jurisdictions and other organizations in developing materials that make sense to different language communities in a cultural context to create spaces where people can show up and participate fully in their language. That means hiring professional interpreters in places where you have a significant proportion of the population that speaks a different language. The gold standard is to dedicate resources and thinking, whether you’re a jurisdiction or nonprofit, where people can show up and be part of the democratic dialogue, without barriers. Do not put people who don’t speak the dominant language in a separate room to get translations for a public meeting, or make them wait for a translation or to provide testimony until after a meeting. There’s an anglo-centric way of doing things in this country, and despite many of us saying we value a multicultural, multilingual democracy, we mostly seem to be blind to the fact that one in five people in this country speak a language other than English at home.

In 2021, Democracy Rising, in partnership with Abraham Sanchez in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Comunidades Unidas in Salt Lake City, Utah, launched a project to investigate attitudes of Spanish-speaking communities on voting, representation, and other democracy issues. What can you tell us about your findings and how to boost engagement and outreach among Spanish-speaking communities?

In Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S. specifically, there’s a large percentage of the community that is voting eligible, and a large percentage that is not. And there are many mixed-status families. Many of our focus group participants expressed the idea of the need for solidarity within a family structure where, if I’m going to be voting, I’m voting with my family or community in mind. It’s less of an individual vote. Often, election materials created in English and then translated for non English-speaking audiences are framed around the American value of rugged individualism — with messages like “voting is your right,” “you’re an empowered citizen,” or “when you vote, YOUR voice is heard.” So even when translated, that kind of framing is not particularly effective for Spanish-speaking communities where there is more of a collaborative culture, more of a “we” mindset.

Another thing that came up in the focus groups is that the people who are eligible to vote feel overwhelmed — there’s not enough accessible information and resources about the candidates and issues, or they don’t know where to find it. These eligible voters also have a built-in fear around civic participation, and it extends to the ballot itself. This comes from a collective traumatic experience of going through years of bureaucracy around citizenship forms and paperwork, where if you make even the smallest mistake you can lose everything. That fear gets amplified to all official activities, including voting. People are genuinely concerned about making a mistake on their ballot, and for good reason.

On the other side, those who can’t vote often feel it’s their civic responsibility to find out everything they can about the candidates and issues in order to help inform those who can vote. So, as candidates, advocates, and local leaders think about outreach to different language communities, they should aim to engage everyone in the community, including those who can’t vote.

For recent or first-generation immigrants, how much of the language they use to discuss politics is shaped by the context of their country of birth, or parents?

In our conversations with more recent immigrants, there’s still a general sense that the government and politicians in the U.S. are less corrupt than in their countries of origin. That contributes to a sense that change is more possible here, through advocacy and the vote. Also, many people from Asian- and Spanish-speaking communities who fled from authoritarian regimes, the concept of democracy is something important to work toward.

And despite all of the laws to suppress their civic participation and their existence, and despite American democracy slipping, many of our focus group participants still hold out hope for American democracy. I think this is an opportunity. If we leverage this hope and create spaces for different language communities to actually participate in the political process, that is a win. Unfortunately this is not the way this country sees it. Instead of tapping into the vast political knowledge of these communities, we want them to “become more American” in order to participate. We need to find ways to integrate all of our brothers and sisters who have lived with a variety of political systems into our reform conversations, to help us understand what it was like, about what worked and didn’t. What was it like to live under an authoritarian regime? Under a parliamentary system? To have multiple parties compete for your vote? To have a majority of women in a legislative body? To have an Indigenous president?

What practices and policies can we implement now to achieve true multicultural, multilingual democracy? What will it take to achieve this vision in the long term?

There are very basic things we can change — not just around language, but around access for regular people to political discourse, and the civic world: Make public meetings at a time when people can actually attend, make the information about these meetings more accessible, post public meeting information in public spaces, change hiring practices at the local level to reflect what the communities look and sound like, and so much more. We can reallocate funds from the badly translated paper materials to invest in things like online meeting platforms, similar to the United Nations, where people can communicate in multiple languages. A lot of the most impactful changes can be made at the local level with small investments. A budget is a moral document: How are you spending your money? Who are you including, and who are you excluding? Are you making space for non-English speakers to serve on boards and commissions, for example?

The same is true with the nonprofit sector. How are we making sure people are included, and not tokenized? Small, incremental changes can open the door for people from other language communities to start serving on organizational boards, and in other leadership positions. Let’s open those doors early on where the investment is less, and start creating that opportunity to build leadership, to be civically engaged.

The long-term vision is to have true representation of these communities, with candidates that fully represent their values and don't just look like them or have a Spanish name like them. The way the law currently measures representation boils down to having candidates elected that are from the same ethnic group as the community. Our focus group participants were clear that someone can look like them and be a danger to their community as well. There is a need to de-silo different language communities when candidates run for office and when advocates are trying to pass good policy. Different language communities recognize that working together with other cultural and language communities is the only way to build power when numbers for each language community are not big enough. It doesn't matter who the candidate is, from what community, as long as they're representing the interests and values of the whole community.

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What We Know About Ranked Choice Voting (Political Reform, 2021): In this report, authors Maresa Strano and Lee Drutman put together a comprehensive overview of existing literature on ranked-choice voting (RCV), showing how RCV is an improvement over the more traditional single-vote plurality voting system.

Multi-seat Districts and Larger Assemblies Produce More Diverse Racial Representation (Political Reform, 2021): Various electoral systems have the potential to increase racial representation. Researchers find that larger assembly size and more contested seats per district are associated with more parties representing communities of color.

Evaluating the Effects of Ranked-Choice Voting (Political Reform, 2022): As ranked-choice voting (RCV) continues to spread across America, our Political Reform program formed the Electoral Reform Research Group (ERRG) to provide more research for activists, voters, election officials, and lawmakers who want to know more about the effects of adopting RCV.

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