Bilingual ballots in Reading, PA

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 19 15:10:30 UTC 2003

>>From the Philadelphia Enquirer, Posted on Mon, May. 19, 2003

  A battle over bilingual ballot

  By Carrie Budoff,  Inquirer Staff Writer

  READING - Voting was never easy for some Puerto Ricans in this dog-eared
city.  Poll workers demanded identification, turned Spanish-speaking
voters away, even made insulting remarks. "No Hispanics wake up before
9:30 a.m.," a worker told monitors from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Now under federal orders to change its ways, Berks County is expected to
do business differently in tomorrow's primary, when it becomes the only
Pennsylvania county outside Philadelphia to offer ballots and poll
assistance in two languages: English and Spanish.

  Some saw it as a sign of what's to come: As the non-English-speaking
population grows, voting experts say, Election Day is likely to look just
as diverse.  "We are going to see more bilingual balloting in the future
as the population becomes more diverse and dispersed," said Rashad
Robinson, national field director of the Center for Voting and Democracy,
a national nonprofit organization.  The transition in Reading was made
only after a federal court ruled in March that the county discriminated
against Hispanic voters. With the county's first bilingual election
tomorrow, tensions remain fresh between the old and new in this city in
the Neversink Mountains, where aging rowhouses, Hispanic businesses, and
antiques stores coexist tenuously.

  "It sends the message that they don't need to learn English," said
Timothy Reiver, a Republican who is chairman of the Board of
Commissioners.  The Rev. Nicolas Camacho Jr., a Puerto Rican native hired
to prepare the county for bilingual elections, said that Hispanics do want
to learn the language.  "This is a matter of principle," he said.  The
fight started four years ago.  Carlos A. Zayas sent letters to the
election board, showed up at its office, and attended meetings. Zayas, a
city resident and lawyer, wanted more assistance for the burgeoning
Spanish-speaking community.

  The culture shift could be felt on the streets, in restaurants, churches
and bodegas, and in travel agencies promoting fares to Puerto Rico and
beyond. Census numbers also told the story: Between 1990 and 2000, the
Hispanic population doubled to 30,302, or 37.3 percent of the city. Puerto
Ricans make up the majority of the city's Hispanics.  For decades, Reading
has been a magnet for Hispanics in search of better pay, much like
Allentown, Lancaster and southern Chester County.

  But the election board denied Zayas' requests.  "Until we are instructed
to do so by the director of the United States census, we were not required
to publish the ballots in a language other than English," the election
board solicitor wrote in a 1999 letter to Zayas.  The denials made some
Puerto Ricans bristle. They viewed them as attempts by the people in power
to protect that power.

  At the Tropical Bakery, where owner Raul Melendez hawks pans of flan and
bread pudding, Spanish-speaking customers complained of poor treatment at
the polls.  "They are trying to do everything they can to get rid of the
Hispanics - to make us uncomfortable," Melendez said.  Behind the
resistance stood two Republican commissioners on the three-member board.
The third commissioner, Judith Schwank, who is a Democrat, favored
bilingual assistance.

  Commissioner Mark C. Scott saw the case as a chance to "put our foot
down."  "Bilingualism speaks to the disintegration of our country as a
unified whole," Scott said. "People think it threatens the unity of the
country, and they are right."  Reiver saw it in broader terms: Reading is
suffering economically, with job losses, drug violence and single-parent
homes. To turn the city around, he said, it must attract more employers
with quality jobs. But that cannot happen unless residents speak English
well, Reiver said.

  Acquiescing to bilingual elections would allow Hispanics to "stay stuck
in their native language," Reiver said.  The government saw the situation
differently, after monitoring city elections for two years at Zayas'
urging. In its lawsuit, the government alleged that the county maintained
a hostile voting environment and failed to provide bilingual assistance
required by law.  "In the year or so I have been here, I have never seen a
locality that has been so against the reforms we were seeking," said Jorge
Martinez, a Justice Department spokesman. He declined to say how often the
department sues to compel enforcement of the federal Voting Rights Act,
which bans racial discrimination in voting.

  The government requires about 300 municipalities - up from 250 a decade
ago - to provide minority-language voting assistance because more than 5
percent of the voting-age population in those communities does not speak
or read English well.  Philadelphia is the only county in Pennsylvania on
the list; seven New Jersey counties also qualify.  Lehigh and Lancaster
Counties are offering more and more bilingual services as they become home
to two of the state's largest Hispanic communities.

  Spanish services are limited in the Philadelphia suburbs, with Chester
County producing voting instructions in Spanish.  In Berks County, the
outcome was inevitable in March, when U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson
ordered Reading to go bilingual in all future elections: bilingual
ballots, translators, bilingual poll workers.  The legal basis was that
Puerto Ricans, as U.S. citizens, can vote without having to show
proficiency in English, unlike naturalized citizens. As a result, the
Voting Rights Act affords Puerto Ricans special accommodations. Berks
County's refusal to stray from English-only elections put it in violation
of the law, Baylson ruled.

  "A lot of people felt they really wanted us to fight this," Scott said.
"There is a part of America out there that is really committed to certain
expectations. One is that immigrants will learn English, and there will be
no catering to them."  The test is tomorrow, and the job of making the
transition go smoothly falls to Camacho, an Army reservist who has spent
the last 20 years in Reading. He has been hiring bilingual workers and
translating the ballot into Spanish.

  "I thought it would be a piece of cake," Camacho said.  It hasn't been.
Almost 20 of the 240 poll workers quit within days of the ruling. Two said
they dropped out in protest.  Camacho didn't dwell on the loss. Instead,
he replaced the workers with people who could speak English and Spanish.

  Contact staff writer Carrie Budoff at 610-313-8211 or
cbudoff at Inquirer staff writer Alletta Emeno contributed to
this article.

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