Montgomery Ordered to Offer Spanish Ballots

Alkistis Fleischer fleischa at georgetown.edu
Mon Jul 29 22:13:30 UTC 2002


Montgomery Ordered to Offer Spanish Ballots 
U.S. Cites Surging Latino Population 
By Nurith C. Aizenman and D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 27, 2002; Page B01 


Montgomery County must offer ballots in Spanish in this year's elections under a federal law intended to safeguard the voting rights of the growing number of U.S. citizens who speak limited English, Department of Justice officials announced yesterday.

More than 335 jurisdictions in 30 states will have to follow the language-access provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which requires voting boards to print ballots, signs, registration forms and informational brochures in an additional language if they have large shares of voting-age citizens who do not speak English well.

Although it is not obligated to by law, Prince George's County will also provide Spanish-language ballots this year, officials said.

Representatives of immigrant rights groups said that translated materials are crucial to ensuring that all citizens are able to participate in the democratic process.

"People who are perfectly capable of reading the names on the ballot [in English] may need help in reading the explanation of a question on the ballot about a bond issue," said Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza. "Those things are not necessarily easy to figure out in English."

Mark Kirkorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limits on immigration, criticized the ballot requirement as part of a trend of offering more government services for those whose English is limited, which "just highlights the reason we need one language in the first place."

"We are going to end up with an increasingly large amount of languages that small jurisdictions are going to start dealing with," he said. "There is only so much of that that is economical or feasible."

The Justice Department updates the list of jurisdictions affected by the Voting Rights Act once a decade, based on census data.

Montgomery's inclusion this year reflects a massive surge in its Latino population in recent years. About 100,000 -- or 12 percent -- of the county's residents are Hispanic.

In Fairfax County, 11 percent of residents are Hispanic. In Prince George's, 7 percent are. And in Arlington, the rate has reached 19 percent.

But only Montgomery, in which 6 percent of residents speak only Spanish well, had a high enough number of voting-age residents with limited English and low education levels to trigger the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.

Although the news was announced yesterday, Maryland election officials had anticipated it when they overhauled voting machines last year, so machines purchased for Montgomery and Prince George's are already set up to offer ballots in Spanish.

Jorge Ribas, past president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, welcomed the move.

"After the international embarrassment of the 'hanging chads' and the 'pregnant chads,' all this rigamarole in Florida . . . we want to make things easy for people to vote. If it takes doing it in another language, so be it."

Immigrant advocates said the translation requirement is an important first step -- and not just for Latinos. Glenn Magpantay, of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, noted that more than 15 jurisdictions will be required to expand Asian Americans' access.

"Nationally, it's a big win," he said. "For some communities in the country, the right to vote got a lot closer."

The Census Bureau was also praised for compiling the statistics for the list now, despite initially predicting that the process would take until September.

"This gives particularly the newly covered jurisdictions time to prepare," said La Raza's Kamasaki.

Election officials in Fairfax and Arlington were among those who were relieved to learn that they won't have to spend the money and deploy the workers necessary to meet the Justice Department's requirements.

"I thought for sure we'd be on the list, based on our numbers," said Charlotte Cleary, Arlington's general registrar. Providing Spanish-language ballots would have been a challenge, she said: "There's not enough space to put the information in both English and Spanish on the machines we use."

Cleary noted that Arlington has made an effort to reach out to Spanish-speaking voters by providing signs and informational brochures in Spanish. Like Fairfax County, Arlington employs poll workers who speak Spanish. 

"We want to be as inclusive as we can," Cleary said.

Staff writer Annie Gowen contributed to this report. 


© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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