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Ethnic minority voters finding their voices in multilingual polls

SF Public Press
 — Aug 2 2010 - 5:15pm

A new multilingual poll shows that ethic minority voters are playing a major role in the race for governor and influencing the chances of success for the legalization of marijuana.

In the latest Field Poll, Democrat Jerry Brown polled at 44 percent, just one point ahead of Republican Meg Whitman, in the battle for governor. However, the poll shows that the state’s ethnic minority communities are making it a close race, with 48 percent of white non-Hispanics opting for Whitman and 40 percent for Brown. The poll as a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percent. Some 1,390 registered voters were polled.

The Latino community is not as supportive of Brown as might be expected, given its track record of voting for Democrats. Some 50 percent expressed a preference for Brown, but 39 percent back Whitman.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, attributes this irregularity to Whitman’s ethnic minority outreach campaigning.

“She’s translated her entire website into Mandarin. That’s an attempt to reach out to the largest of the Asian populations. That’s an interesting new development; I don’t think that’s been done before,” he said.

The Field Poll, which has been polling in Spanish for 20 years but only this year introduced Asian languages, used sample sizes in each language that were large enough to compare voter trends across ethnic groups.

In the past two weeks both the Field Poll and the Public Policy Institute of California have released the results of polls conducted in six languages. In a survey released last week, the Public Policy Institute questioned 2,502 California residents on their opinions regarding environmental issues, focussing on climate change, energy policy and air pollution.

Both companies polled in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and Vietnamese.

The results revealed discrepancies among the majority opinions of ethnic minority groups.

Polling in multiple languages serves several goals. Primarily, the opinions of a significant portion of the population who do not speak English are taken into account. Pollsters can therefore have more confidence in how representative their samples are.

In the Field Poll, respondents were asked questions regarding voting preferences in the upcoming elections and their opinions on a range of political issues.

While overall opposition to Proposition 19, the Marijuana Legalization Initiative, is at 48 percent, all five ethnic communities identified in this poll (Latino, African, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese Americans) are solidly against the initiative.

Similarly, ethnic minority communities are proving influential in the state’s assessment of President Barack Obama’s performance. White non-Hispanics are evenly split, with 47 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving. In contrast, all five ethnic minorities are more satisfied with job the president is doing, resulting in a statewide approval rating of 54 percent, versus 39 percent who disapprove.

However, just as white non-Hispanic voters in California approve of Arizona’s new anti-illegal immigration law (58 percent to 37 percent), so do the African, Chinese and Vietnamese American populations. Only Latino and Korean American populations expressed majority disapproval.

When asked their opinions on same-sex marriage, 51 percent of all respondents expressed approval and 42 percent disapproval. On this issue, the views of most ethnic communities were not reflected by the statewide result. Only Latino voters polled as being slightly in favor of same-sex marriage, with the four other groups all showing majority disapproval.

DiCamillo said that the Field Poll’s survey, the third of four multilingual polls it will do this year, is distinct: “Our poll is the first that attempts to double click on the segments of the Asian population.

“When we typically do a registered voters survey of 1,000 voters, Asian voters as a group are about 7-7.5 percent of all registered voters in the state. This gives us 70-75 people – not enough to say much about them and go into their subgroups. So we aimed at interviewing an additional 400-450 Asian voters.”

To gather sufficient respondents from each ethnic group, the Field Poll identifies ethnicity by surname before asking voters their ethnicity. This method was endorsed by the academics DiCamillo consulted, who all estimated that more than 90 percent of Chinese Americans living in California would have Chinese surnames.

However, Stephen Kinney of Public Opinion Strategies, a political and public affairs research firm, considers surnames an unreliable method of identifying ethnicity. “We have a screener question to establish ethnicity — just because they have a last name of a given ethnicity or don’t, you can’t make a judgement about what their ethnicity is.”

One significant drawback the Field Poll faced when applying this method is that it was unable to identify a sufficient number of Filipino Americans, whose surnames overlap with Latino surnames.

“When we attempted to call those names, what we ended up finding was that 85% of them were not Filipinos but Latinos.”

Additional resources, and therefore funding, would be required to gather a large enough sample of Filipino and other populations, such as Japanese and Asian Indians.

Henry Brady, dean and professor of the Goldman School of Public Policy at Berkeley, said the increased expense of multilingual polling stems from the significant translation costs: “You have to get trained translators. You don’t want the differences in answers to be the result of bad translations. As you go from one language to another, the translation problems can be significant. And you have to get the interviewers to have the particular language skills required.”

One significant problem with English-only polls is that some respondents are not at ease when answering in English. By polling in interviewees’ first language, “You make them more comfortable and get answers that aren’t what they think are the right answers, but that are more in tune with what people really think,” Brady said.

Dori Maynard, president of The Maynard Institute, which promotes diversity in journalism, said, “I don’t think we do enough multilingual polling, but what we’ve done has given journalists an insight into communities we wouldn’t otherwise know about.”

DiCamillo said that one of his goals is, “to play back the results into the ethnic communities, so that reporters in each community can personalize issues to their own community.”

And this in turn will have an impact on politics, according to Brady: “Once we start recognizing the opinions of groups that have hitherto not been listened to, decision makers begin taking their opinions more seriously.

“We know historically that ethnic groups tend to vote similarly. Ethnic politics is still an important form of politics in America.”