By Julia Biswas
Kevin Thor ’24, a resident of Fresno, CA, has spent his time leading up to the California gubernatorial recall election translating mail-in ballots and voter information for the older members of his Hmong community — one he feels has been left behind in this election. Fresno is home to one of the two largest urban Hmong communities in the U.S., with about 34,000 Hmong residents.
“My community of Hmong folk hasn’t lived here for as long — they are fairly new to this country, and don’t know the process of voting,” Thor said, as he picked up the voter materials he’d set aside next to him. “These things don’t have Hmong translations to them, so it’s tough for the older community to vote.”
Thor is one of many Stanford affiliates who have been working to increase voting accessibility in marginalized communities across California in preparation for Tuesday’s recall election. The recall election will determine whether Governor Gavin Newsom will be recalled, and if he is, who his replacement will be. As Californians across the state gear up to cast their ballots, many voters still face significant hurdles in the voting process, from voting materials in languages they can’t read to a lack of accessible information about candidates.
Within many small, marginalized communities in California, the responsibility of informing voters about how to participate in the election and dispelling misinformation has fallen on younger community members.
“[We] help translate these mailing ballots and such, explain what this means and what this person stands for,” Thor said.
East Palo Alto Councilmember Antonio López, a second-year Ph.D. student in modern thought and literature, recounted a similar experience with his majority-Hispanic East Palo Alto community.
“They want to catch the community with our guard down, when our bandwidths are so narrow,” López said of those leading the recall process. “I think the hardest part of this process has been when you have communities of color that are working week-to-week and can’t even buy diapers for their kids, and you have to explain to them how politics in Sacramento affects them. That takes time. And there are those vested in power who are taking advantage of that lack of time our community has.”
According to López, the recall process as a whole has an “anti-democratic” spirit. The ballot has two questions: first, “Do you want to recall Governor Newsom?” and second, “If the governor is recalled, who do you want to replace him?” If half or more of the voters vote against the recall, Newsom stays in office. If not, the candidate with the most votes in the second question replaces Newsom.
But merely navigating the 46 candidates listed on the second question can be a challenging and time-consuming task for many members of the East Palo Alto community who need to work and may feel disenchanted with politics, López said. He added that in many marginalized communities, educating voters and helping them stay civically engaged has become the duty of community members, rather than elected officials — a trend which has led to uneven voter engagement across racial demographics.
Thor pointed to the demographic disparity between California’s state government and its population as a manifestation of this phenomenon. Over 60% of California residents are people of color — yet legislators of color make up a minority (about 45%) of the state legislature. And while more than half of Californians are female, just over 30% of California state legislators are. Out of the 40 governors the state has had, only one was non-white. California has never had a female governor, nor an openly queer one.
“The truth is that these politicians are primarily older white men who do not reflect the actual people who live in California, especially the immigrant community, the refugee community in California, whether that be Hmong people or Latinx folk,” Thor said. “They don’t represent us.”
Disparities in voter accessibility can be exacerbated by misinformation surrounding the recall election.
“A lot of people seem to be under the impression that if they vote no on the first question, not only [should] they choose not to vote for someone on the second question, but they can’t — which is not true,” Cameron Lange ’24, Co-Director of StanfordVotes, said.
The reason for Lange’s observation may stem from how Governor Newsom is encouraging voters to cast their ballots. “One question. One answer. No on the recall. Move on. Send in the ballot,” Governor Newsom said at an event held in El Sereno in August.
Another confusing aspect of the recall election involves how and when voters can cast their ballots — an ambiguity that can be a big hurdle for voters in marginalized communities where clarifying information is not readily accessible.
“I’m not sure that all California voters are as aware as they could be of the plethora of voting options available to them both on and before September 14,” Lange said. “A lot of people don’t know that California has same-day voter registration. A lot of people aren’t aware of how extensive California’s early voting options are, [which] opened on September 4.”
Another option voters have is to vote by mail. According to the California Secretary of State’s website, as long as ballots are postmarked by Sept. 14, 2021, or returned to a secure ballot drop box, voting location or the county elections office by 8:00 p.m. PT on Sept. 14, 2021, they’ll be counted.
For Thor, working to spread accurate information and encourage voter participation is the best way to help the litany of under-resourced communities across California. He believes it’s a responsibility that he and other young voters share in an election where so much is at stake.
“This is our future, and if you want to build a better future, then vote,” Thor said. “I’m not going to tell you who to vote for — you can vote for whomever you want — but just know that there are a lot of lives who really depend on this. Get out there, get out to vote, motivate your parents to vote, help translate — that’s what I’m doing, too. just vote for a better future.