Gabriel Schaefer Published on 26 October 2010
Category: English in the News
Federal Observers to Monitor County Polls, Check Equal Access for Spanish Speakers
SHEFFIELD TWP.— The U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing the Lorain County Board of Elections’ compliance with a federal law that mandates equal access to the voting booth for Spanish-speakers of Puerto Rican descent.
The Justice Department, which recently settled a lawsuit it had filed against the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections over the same issue, also plans to have observers at several polling places in Lorain County on Election Day, said Paul Adams, director of the Lorain County elections board.
Adams said his office has already turned over the information— which includes a list of the county’s registered voters, a list of bilingual poll workers, a copy of the ballots being used in this election and a list of voting precincts that have been consolidated into a single polling location — that was requested by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division Voting Section in a letter last month.
Adams, a Democrat, said he doesn’t know what precipitated the Justice Department’s interest in the Lorain County elections board, although he assumes it’s an outgrowth of the investigation in Cuyahoga County.
He said he welcomes the federal review of the elections board’s policies.
“I’m concerned with it to the extent that I want our office to follow the law and do what we’re required to do,” Adams said. “We want to be in compliance with the law.”
Elections board Chairman Bob Rousseau, a Republican, said he wonders if there might be a political motivation behind the Justice Department’s interest in Spanish-language accessibility in Lorain County and beyond.
“There’s never been a problem in my 25 years, and I don’t see how it became a problem this year,” Rousseau said.
Mike Tobin, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach, said he couldn’t comment on the request for information or the observers. He also declined to say whether a formal investigation has been launched into the Lorain County Board of Elections.
In a complaint filed in federal court on Sept. 1, the Justice Department accused the Cuyahoga County elections board of violating the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 by not providing adequate Spanish-language materials and assistance during elections.
Under the law, boards of election can’t hinder the voting rights of “persons educated in American-flag schools, including the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, where the predominant classroom language is Spanish,” the complaint said. In a settlement reached after the lawsuit was filed, the Cuyahoga County elections board agreed to develop a sample bilingual ballot to post online and place a poster of that ballot at 71 voting precincts that have more than 100 registered voters with Hispanic surnames for the Sept. 7 primary election for the new Cuyahoga County government that will take office in January.
The agreement also required the Cuyahoga County board to translate several other election documents, improve its outreach efforts to the Hispanic community and make good faith efforts to recruit bilingual polls workers.
For the Nov. 2 election, Spanish- language ballots must be provided at the 71 voting precincts and there must be at least one bilingual poll worker at each of those precincts on Election Day, according to the agreement.
The Cuyahoga County agreement, which also requires the creation of a Spanish-language advisory council, creation of a Spanish-language website and federal observers, will remain in effect through 2014. The elections board will also be required to provide Spanishlanguage ballots throughout all of Cuyahoga County beginning with the May 2011 primary, according to the agreement.
The population data
Lorain County — especially in the city of Lorain — has a high concentration of Hispanic residents, most of whom trace their ancestry to Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
According to the 2000 census, 13,273 Lorain County residents, or 4.7 percent of the population, were of Puerto Rican descent. Of that number, 10,536 people of Puerto Rican descent lived in the city of Lorain, which accounted for 15.3 percent of the city’s population.
The data said that 21 percent of the city’s population was Hispanic or Latino, including people of Puerto Rican descent. About 6.9 percent of the county’s population is Hispanic.
The data also said that of the 6,924 residents of Puerto Rican descent in the city of Lorain between the ages of 18 and 64, there were 439 residents who described their English proficiency as “not well.” Another 137 didn’t speak English at all.
The Census Bureau estimated that the number of Puerto Ricans in Lorain County had climbed to 14,836, or about 4.9 percent of the county’s population, by the time it conducted a survey between 2006 and 2008. The city of Lorain also saw slight growth in its Puerto Rican population in the estimate, with 10,574 residents, or about 15.8 percent of the city’s population, claiming Puerto Rican ancestry.
Adams said his office doesn’t have any hard data on the number of Hispanic residents who vote in Lorain County.
Although bilingual ballots aren’t available in Lorain County, Adams said the elections board has made significant effort over the years to make sure that all Hispanic voters have equal access to the polls and he isn’t aware of any complaints.
Adams said the elections board has policies in place to assist Spanish-speaking voters cast their ballots, including having at least two bilingual translators — one Democrat and one Republican — at four polling places in South Lorain.
The board also provides bilingual voter registration cards for the precincts that vote at the South Lorain polling locations — Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Sacred Heart Chapel, the south branch of the Lorain Public Library and Whittier Middle School.
And although a bilingual elections board worker is available during early voting at the board’s offices, it’s a service that’s rarely used, Adams said. From what he’s observed, most Spanish-speaking voters bring a family member to assist them, Adams said.
Mary Santiago, chair of the Ohio Commission on Hispanic/ Latino Affairs and a Lorain resident of Puerto Rican descent, said she hasn’t been concerned about Spanish-language accessibility in Lorain County.
“I have not received complaints. I’ve received kudos for them,” Santiago said. “They’ve always had a Spanish-speaking person on hand.”
Santiago said she doesn’t know if providing a Spanishlanguage ballot, as the feds are requiring of Cuyahoga County, is necessary in Lorain County, but it’s worth looking at.
“I think we should meet the needs of the people, and if it’s something we need to do, let’s do it,” she said.
Adams said he doesn’t know how much it would cost his office, which uses electronic voting machines, to translate the ballot language. If such a requirement were put in place, he said the price would depend on whether the elections board was required to translate ballots for the entire county or just in Lorain.
Luisa Barone, a spokeswoman for Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, said her office is aware that federal observers will be in Lorain County on Election Day, but there aren’t currently any lawsuits pending against the board of elections over Spanish-language accessibility or anything else.
Adams said the Justice Department plans to meet with elections board officials on Nov. 1, the day before Election Day. Beyond that, he said, he doesn’t know what will happen with the Justice Department review.
“All I have been told is they will have observers,” he said.
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