The initiative and recall process has been thrown into turmoil after a
federal court ruled that petitions from grass-roots activists have to
be translated into foreign languages.
Citizen groups argue the new requirement is a burdensome and expensive
impediment to the petition process.
Others say it's only fair that all citizens, even those who don't
speak English, have full access to information leading up to an election.
This comes up as the debate on immigration boiled over last week with widespread
student walk-outs and protests against legislation aimed at tightening
The petition issue is being watched intently by election officials throughout
the West. If the decision stands, they want to know what rules they have
to play by.
The uncertainty has already stymied the efforts of a slow-growth movement
in Loma Linda.
The Save Loma Linda group had gathered signatures in an effort to force
an election on restricting development in the city's South Hills,
but a federal judge last month threw out the petitions, saying they had
to be translated into Spanish.
''All the developers' plans and City Council documents were
in English,'' Kathy Glendrange of Save Loma Linda wrote in an
e-mail. ''It's outrageous to me that they can approve the
plans in English, but then if the citizens want to object, the citizens
have to pay to translate all the documents into Spanish. How is that fair?''
San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Kari Verjil said county attorneys
are looking at the issue.
''We're still waiting for an opinion on that. It was kind of
a surprise to me about the Spanish requirement,'' she said.
The ruling on the Loma Linda case was based on a November decision by the
9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled recall petitions in Orange
County have to be translated. (The case is Padilla v. Lever.)
The court for the first time expanded the reach of the Voting Rights Act
of 1965 to include activities by citizen groups trying to force an election.
In a 2-1 decision, the court invalidated petitions for a recall election
in the Santa Ana Unified School District because they weren't translated
Under the 1965 act, election materials have to be translated into foreign
languages if 5 percent of the voting age population speaks that language.
That clearly applies to ballots and other election materials provided
by the government.
San Bernardino County has to translate ballots and other election materials
into Spanish. Los Angeles County has to put materials into six other languages.
Orange County has four languages besides English.
The 10th and 11th U.S. circuit courts of appeal in 1988 rejected the idea
of applying the translation requirement to citizen-generated petitions.
Monterey County last month also had a slow-growth effort similar to Loma
The U.S. District Court judges who ruled in the Loma Linda and Monterey
cases said if the translation requirement applied to recalls, it must
also apply to initiatives and referendums.
Orange County, along with other states in the 9th Circuit, have asked for
a review of the case by all 11 judges of the court, said Neal Kelley,
interim registrar of voters in Orange County. The 9th Circuit covers Arizona,
California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.
''This raises a lot of questions,'' Kelley said.
For one, who pays for the translation, the citizen groups or the county?
And who ensures the translation is accurate?
For now, Orange County officials are telling any groups considering petitions
to get them translated, Kelley said.
''Things are being thrown off the ballot left and right,''
said Bryce Gee, an attorney working for the Monterey slow-growth group.
His group hopes the 9th Circuit will decide this week to hear an appeal
of the decision by the lower court judge that shot down the Monterey County
petitions. The group still hopes to make the June ballot, he said.
In his dissent to the 9th Circuit ruling, Judge William C. Canby Jr. expressed
concern that the decision could wind up restricting citizen participation.
''The downside ... is the chilling effect on recalls and initiatives,''
he wrote, adding later, ''I fear that the majority's ruling
here, rather than opening the electoral process in accord with the intent
of the Voting Rights Act, will have a tendency to close it.''
Though immigrants who attain citizenship are required to understand English,
advocates say the authors of the Voting Rights Act sought to make sure
everyone has a fair chance at participating in elections.
''We live in a country that's pluralistic, that's diverse
... . We should be respectful that other people maintain their native
language and want to be part of the process,'' said Armando Navarro,
a professor at UC Riverside and national coordinator of the National Alliance
for Human Rights.
Others argue the requirement perpetuates a society that is becoming more
''If you are a citizen, you should have had to pass English proficiency,''
said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration
Reform. ''We have seen in the past week the deep social divisions
in our country. All of this contributes to the fragmentation of our society
at a time when we need to be coming together.''