AB 817 would allow non-citizens to work at polls

AB 817 would allow non-citizens to work at polls

July 15, 2013

By Katy Grimes


Poll watchers in America are currently people who are also legally registered to vote. But a new bill would change that in California.

If Assembly Bill 817 is passed, non-citizens, also known as legal resident aliens, who are not eligible to vote in American elections, and who may have limited English language skills, would be allowed to work as poll workers at California’s polling stations.

By Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, the bill passed the state Senate on July 8 on a 22-10 party line vote. It currently is being considered in the Assembly.

There is a problem with this bill. Anyone legally registered to vote must be a citizen or a naturalized citizen. In order to become a naturalized citizen, immigrants are required to pass a reading and writing English test.

But not all members of the Legislature agree with Bonta’s AB 817. Some who are opposed to this bill feel it is part of a deliberate process to blur the lines between legal and illegal in California.

Unknown-1Why is this bill needed?

“Would you have someone who had never driven a car teach you how to drive?” Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Linda, asked me.  Logue is on the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee, and voted against this bill. “It’s always been the law of the land that whoever is overseeing poll watchers are people who are also registered to vote, who have a stake in the system, who have basically pledged their allegiance to the Constitution of the United States.”

Bonta claims there is a shortage of bilingual poll workers as well as a need to increase civic engagement by residents who are not eligible to vote because they are not yet citizens.

Other lawmakers agree, including Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who recently said the bill is important for those who legally want to become Americans. “People who have legal status, and are on their way to becoming citizens, are a full part of our democracy,” Steinberg said, according to a KFBK report.

But Logue questioned the need for additional bilingual workers, and noted that when a person passes the immigration test, they’ve already passed a proficiency test in the English language.

AB 817 would allow poll workers who may not actually be proficient enough in English to help voters, Logue said. “We are the only state in the country doing this,” he added.

Creating a need

AB 817 would allow up to five non-citizens to serve at a particular polling site. Those poll workers must be permanent U.S. residents who legally entered the country. But language skills are not a requirement.

However, according to Linda Chavez, former Staff Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and current Chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity, there are exceedingly few persons who are actually eligible to vote who cannot understand English, which is why so many are asking what the need for this bill is.

English skills

Democratic Sen. Norma Torres of Pomona says the workers could provide much-needed help to voters who have limited English skills. She says 2.6 million eligible California voters are not fully proficient in English. But why would naturalized citizens who already passed a written and verbal English test need any voting assistance from non-English-speaking non-citizens?

AB 817 repeals the existing requirement that a person must be a registered voter in order to serve as a precinct board member. As such, the bill also effectively repeals a long-standing principle that poll workers should be similarly situated to the voters whom they serve — citizens registered to vote in the same county.

According to Bonta, more than 2.6 million eligible voters in California are not yet fully proficient in English, and without language assistance, these citizens face challenges in asserting their right to vote and casting an informed ballot. “As the diversity of the state increases, new tools are needed to ensure that language assistance is available 
at the polling place and in the voter registration process,” Bonta said on his Website. “AB 817 addresses this need by expanding the pool of available bilingual speakers to serve
as poll workers and other election volunteers. AB 817 seeks to replicate the successful high school student poll worker program which a number of counties have used to bolster their poll worker recruitment. AB 817 does not impose any mandates on counties.”

AB 817 will strengthen our democracy by promoting greater availability of bilingual assistance.”

Logue’s response is, “This is about the credibility and integrity of our voting systems.”

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