Lorain county must now provide spanish ballots too
March 2, 2011 · Print This Article
Chronicle – Telegram editor
SHEFFIELD TWP. – The U.S. Department of Justice has told the Lorain County Board of Elections to give Spanish-speaking voters greater access to the voting booth, including printing ballots and other election materials in both English and Spanish and hiring more bilingual poll workers.
The recommendations, contained in a Feb. 24 letter from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, stem from a review launched last year of the county’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act requires equal access to the ballot box for people educated in American-flag schools, such as those in Puerto Rico, where the predominant language is Spanish.
“We note that while the County has undertaken some laudable efforts to serve the needs of its limited English proficient residents, it needs to significantly expand its bilingual elections program to meet its obligations under (the law),” Justice Department attorneys Ali Ahmad and Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez wrote in the letter.
County elections board Director Paul Adams said that although the board still needs to fully evaluate the Justice Department recommendations, he doesn’t believe the county has any choice but to comply or face a federal lawsuit similar to the one filed against Cuyahoga County’s elections board last year.
“Their intention was to work with our county and get to the same place without having to go that route,” Adams said.
After the lawsuit was filed last year, the Cuyahoga County elections board reached an agreement with the Justice Department and began rolling out numerous changes to accommodate Spanish-speaking voters almost immediately.
The Cuyahoga County elections board must provide Spanish-language ballots throughout the entire county by the May primary, according to the agreement.
Adams said he isn’t certain what the time frame will be for Lorain County to meet that same requirement. Doing so by May – the first absentee ballots are set to be mailed out March 19 to soldiers and other overseas residents and early voting starts March 29 – could prove difficult, he said.
“They may give us some leeway on not implementing everything for the primary,” Adams said, but he believes that by the November general election, the elections board will have to provide Spanish-language ballots throughout the Lorain County.
The Justice Department also recommended better training and improving outreach efforts including through local Spanish-language media and the formation of a Spanish-Language Advisory Committee. Adams said the Justice Department also wants the elections board’s phone system and website to be accessible in Spanish.
Lorain County has a large Hispanic population, most of whom trace their ancestry to Puerto Rico, that is largely concentrated in Lorain. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2008, about 4.9 percent of the county’s population was of Puerto Rican extraction, while 15.8 percent of the city of Lorain’s population had Puerto Rican heritage.
Adams, as well as elections board members Helen Hurst, a Republican, and Tom Smith, a Democrat, all said that they have had almost no complaints about the access provided to Spanish-speaking voters over the years. The elections board largely handles the issue through Spanish-speaking employees.
“Historically, we’ve provided that service to the Puerto Rican community; however, the Department of Justice feels that there should be a higher level of accessibility, and we’re willing to work with them to provide that,” Adams said.
Justice Department observers monitored six polling locations in Lorain during the November 2010 election and found numerous problems, according to the letter sent to Adams, a Democrat, and Jim Kramer, the Republic deputy director of the elections board.
Of the six polling places that had federal observers, three sites had designated bilingual poll workers, one had two Spanish-speaking poll workers, although they were not designated as translators, and two had no bilingual poll workers at all, the letter said.
While the poll workers at Whittier Middle School did a “sufficient job” assisting voters, there were problems at other locations, including Mount Zion Baptist Church, where a voter complained that “she remained confused after voting because the bilingual poll workers did not provide full, word-for-word translations of the materials.”
At Sacred Heart Chapel, the two translators appeared overwhelmed by the number of Spanish-speaking voters, the observers reported.
But the biggest problems occurred at General Johnnie Wilson School, where there was not only a lack of fluent bilingual poll workers, but also poll workers who didn’t even know that Spanish-speaking poll workers were on hand or that Spanish-speaking residents could have someone else of their choosing assist them.
In one instance, the letter said, a voter had to receive help from a relative who herself didn’t speak English proficiently. In another case, two voters were denied having the assistance of people of their choice because poll workers believed that voters could only receive assistance from someone under the age of 18.
That prompted observers to call Kramer on Election Day to voice their concerns, the letter said.
Mary Santiago, who serves on the Ohio Commission of Hispanic/Latino Affairs, said she couldn’t comment on the issue in her official capacity. But as a Lorain resident of Puerto Rican descent she said she was pleased that the elections board would soon be providing expanded access to Spanish-speaking voters.
Santiago said she hasn’t personally heard any complaints, but if voters have raised concerns she believes Spanish-language ballots and other steps recommended by the Justice Department are a good idea.
“If there’s something they feel they need, they should have it,” she said.
Smith said he can understand the need to provide greater Spanish-language access in Lorain and Elyria, but questions the need to do so in some outlying areas that have few, if any, Hispanic voters.
“But if we have to do it, we have to do it,” he said.
Smith, as well as Hurst, said their biggest concern is the cost to implement the changes recommended by the Justice Department.
“If it’s a law, it’s our duty to comply,” Hurst said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s going to be extremely expensive, especially in light of the budget.”
The county has struggled financially in recent years and made layoffs and other cuts to deal with budget shortfalls that officials fear will continue into the foreseeable future. Adams said he has not yet calculated how much implementing the changes will cost, but hopes to avoid asking county commissioners to increase the elections board’s roughly $2 million annual budget.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.