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These organizations aim to help citizens engage with their governments.
While sometimes it may seem like there’s a widening gulf separating government from the citizens it is supposed to serve, that doesn’t have to be the case. The people can, and should, engage directly with their elected leaders and public officials, whether it’s through voting, participation in a local board or commission, or just attending a public meeting and speaking out. Here is a list of several organizations in California that protect the vote, and promote civic engagement—the right of citizens to directly influence their government.
The California chapter of the national, nonpartisan advocacy group focuses its efforts on “voting rights, redistricting reform, government transparency, and money in politics to end structural inequities in our state and local democracies.” The Los Angeles-based office’s Election Protection Division provides a one-stop shop of online voting tools, allowing California voters to register to vote, find their local polling places, track their ballots, and even identify and combat online election-related disinformation. The group also deploys poll monitors to polling places (more than 500 monitors in more than 1,200 locations, mostly in Southern California, for the November 2020 election). The monitors report and respond to problematic issues as they arise at the polls. California Common Cause also prepares reports on voting access, most recently “Golden State Democracy: How California Expanded Voter Access During a Pandemic,” documenting the state’s preparations for the unique 2020 election, a vote held in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Voting Rights Lab is a national, nonpartisan organization “designed to supercharge the fight against voter suppression and transform our voting systems.” The group maintains a State Voting Rights Tracker for each state, including, of course, California. The tracker is an attempt to catalog every piece of voting-rights legislation currently under consideration in state legislatures—a valuable resource for citizens who want to get involved in activism to protect the vote. The Lab rates each bill as “pro-voter,” meaning that, if passed, the law would expand or enhance ease of voting, or “anti-voter,” which would be the opposite. Some bills are rated as “neutral” or “mixed or unclear.” Because many bills contain numerous provisions, some of which could be good for voters and others not-so-good, the VRL attempts to assess each bill’s “overall impact” on voter access.
Founded in 1994, the Sacramento-based, nonpartisan California Voter Foundation has been at the forefront of efforts to promote access to the vote and protect ballot security, advocating measures such as requiring paper ballots and post-election audits to verify vote counts and prevent error and fraud in automated voting. The group has also focused on reducing the problem of mail ballot rejection, highlighting the fact that in California, Asian-American and young voters have been particularly susceptible to ballot rejections. The CVF investigates why the disparity exists, and how disenfranchisement by ballot rejection can be remedied. In 2021, the CVF issued a report, “Documenting and Addressing Harassment of Election Officials,” addressing what the CVF calls a “serious problem.”
Operating out of a historic building in San Francisco’s Chinatown, this 49-year-old organization is the first civil rights and legal advocacy group dedicated to low-income Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in California. Even the organization’s headquarters is an example of its effective activism. The building—home to 60 low-income Asian-American residents—had been threatened with demolition to make way for a skyscraper. By moving into the commercial space on the first floor of 53 Columbus, the AAAJ-ALC was able to preserve the remainder of the building as a housing co-op now owned collectively by its residents. Among numerous other issues, the AAAJ-ALC is heavily involved in voter rights advocacy, operating the largest poll-monitoring effort in Northern California, with monitors checking for language access, disabled voter access, and voter intimidation, among other potential ballot access problems.
Founded more than 100 years ago—in 1920, the same year that states ratified the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, finally granting women the right to vote—the League of Women Voters is one of the longest-running national voting rights groups in the country. The California chapter has been out front in the state pushing for such election reforms as same-day voter registration, prepaid vote-by-mail ballots, and a Voter Bill of Rights that was designed in conjunction with the California Secretary of State to make voting rules and laws easier understand for everyday California residents. The LWV has also been instrumental in implementing early voter registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, allowing them to register in plenty of time to vote as soon as they turn 18. “Expanding voter participation to include the full breadth of California’s diverse population, including those who are people of color, young, have disabilities, or whose primary language is not English, is the core of our voting rights mission,” the group says.
In addition to nonprofit groups, there are also governmental entities that work to foster citizen participation. A department within the San Francisco city administrator’s office, the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs states that its mission is to “promote inclusive policies and foster immigrant assistance programs that lead to full civic, economic and linguistic integration.” The office pursues that mission by offering a range of services, including legal help with immigration, grants and loans for the city’s immigrant community, and “safety escorts” to accompany residents on walks to and from appointments in certain neighborhoods where walking alone can be a dicey proposition.
The OCEIA also provides programs to help the city meet its Language Access Ordinance requirements. San Francisco’s language access laws are among the toughest in the United States. But with 44 percent of San Franciscans speaking primarily languages other than English, and 14 percent of households experiencing “language isolation” with no proficient English-speakers over the age of 14, the OCEIA helps residents file complaints against city services and departments that fail to meet language access standards, and assists in securing interpreters for non-English-speaking citizens who want to comment at public government meetings.
In California’s largest city, the newly created Office of Civic Engagement is just one small part of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. In 1999, Los Angeles amended its city charter to create a new system of “neighborhood councils,” in order to—as the department’s name implies—empower the sprawling city’s diverse range of neighborhoods. The department oversees that system and 99 neighborhood councils, each of which functions in an “advisory role” to the city’s central government. Each neighborhood elects its own council members, and these volunteers create “community impact statements” about issues that affect their local area, which are delivered to the city council, mayor, and other officials.
The Community Engagement Department is a small operation listing just two staff members, but it takes part in community empowerment projects, most recently serving as the leader in implementing the city’s Community Empowerment Plan. The CEP is “a starting point for change in recognition that the City of Santa Rosa needs to reorient efforts and change policies in a collaborative manner with the community, and particularly with our communities of color.” The plan was created as a result of the George Floyd protests in 2020, and is designed to “engage and work in partnership with the public in a way that all community members feel they have a voice and are empowered to seek and implement a better, more inclusive system.”
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When it comes to registering to vote, tracking your ballot, or finding out about what local races are coming up, go to your county elections department. Below are links to the election offices in the counties currently covered by California Local.
Nevada County Registrar of Voters
San Benito County Registrar of Voters
Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters
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