Recall Petitions in English Only Are Ruled Unfair

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Times Staff Writer

Petitions used to put the recall of a Santa Ana school board trustee on a 2003 election ballot should have been written in both Spanish and English, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

The ruling did not grant Nativo V. Lopez a new election but overturned a U.S. District Court judge’s decision that the civil rights of three Latino voters were not violated when they mistakenly signed a recall petition written in English.

Sandra Padilla, Victor Sanchez and Rosa Andrade said signature gatherers misled them by saying the petition was merely a request for more information in the highly charged Santa Ana recall of Lopez, who said his Spanish-speaking constituents in the predominantly Latino city did not understand the recall process.


The three sued, saying they could have better understood the document had it been written in Spanish and charged that the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 required it be written in a language they understood. A three-judge panel of the appellate court agreed 2 to 1.

The decision provides ammunition for those who have pushed for petitions to be printed in multiple languages. Voting-rights advocates said the ruling could be used to force election officials statewide to require multiple-language petitions for ballot issues, including initiatives.

The ruling means “non-English-speaking voters have the opportunity to participate in the entire electoral process, from beginning -- which often means deciding whether to sign a petition -- to end, in the voting booth,” said former Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney Thomas Saenz, who represented the plaintiffs. “The logic of the decision also applies to petitions for state initiatives as well.”

The principal defendants -- then-Orange County Registrar of Voters Rosalyn Lever and her assistant Suzanne Slupsky -- argued that the Voting Rights Act did not apply because the Lopez recall petition was not official voting material and was circulated by private individuals. The federal district court judge who heard the case agreed and dismissed the lawsuit.

But in overturning the district judge, the appeals court said “there was sufficient state involvement to trigger the bilingual requirements” in the Voting Rights Act. The ruling noted that the registrar’s office certified the English-only recall petition as conforming to California election laws.

“Elections officials could have ... demanded that the recall proponents publish it in Spanish as well as English but chose not to,” said the 26-page ruling written by Judge Harry Pregerson.


The appellate court also rejected an argument that requiring the petition to be printed in Spanish would impose an unfair financial burden on recall proponents.

The circuit court’s ruling was “very good news,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause.

“Petition gatherers should have no objection to translating materials if they believe all voters should be fully informed on an issue when they sign their petition.”

Orange County officials could not be reached for comment on whether they planned to appeal.

Lopez, who was recalled by 71% of voters, said he was also pleased by the ruling.

“I’ve moved on with my life, but I’m confident this ruling will help someone else in a future election,” he said.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge William C. Canby said the plaintiffs’ “alleged injury” could have been remedied by rescinding their signatures, as one did, or by voting not to recall Lopez.