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In a victory for Spanish-speaking voters in the City of Reading, Pa. — where Hispanics account for more than one-third of the population — a federal judge on Tuesday ordered election officials to begin printing all election materials in both English and Spanish for any precinct where registered Hispanic voters constitute more than 5 percent of those on the rolls. “Voting without understanding the ballot is like attending a concert without being able to hear,” U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania wrote in a 35-page opinion in United States v. Berks County. “Even if the voter, illiterate in English, may be able to distinguish one candidate’s last name from another, the voter illiterate in English may not understand the office for which the various candidates are running, and surely cannot understand the various propositions, ranging from bond authorizations to constitutional amendments,” Baylson wrote. But Baylson said he wasn’t ready to grant all of the “sweeping relief” requested by the U.S. Department of Justice, including requiring bilingual poll workers in 45 of Reading’s precincts for the entire 13-hour primary election day. Instead, Baylson appointed a special master to study the question and make recommendations within 10 days about whether, where and how many interpreters should be ordered by the court, including the logistics of how it should be done. The special master is attorney Maxwell E. Davison, a retired judge who served on the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas from 1972 to 1990 and who is now a partner at Baylson’s former firm, Duane Morris. Under Baylson’s order, Davison’s task will be to review the demographics for Reading and, after considering “logistics, timeliness, and cost-benefit analysis,” make recommendations about which precinct should have interpreters; and whether they should be present for the entire day or “only those hours in which the most heavy voting will occur.” Davison must report back “no later than March 27, 2003,” with recommendations, after which the lawyers will have seven days to comment, according to the order. The Justice Department’s lawsuit came on the heels of a two-year investigation that, the suit said, showed “evidence of hostile and unequal treatment of Hispanic and Spanish-speaking voters by poll workers in the City of Reading.” The suit alleges that poll workers turned away Hispanic voters because they could not understand their names, and sometimes made hostile statements in the presence of other voters, such as the following: “This is the U.S.A. — Hispanics should not be allowed to have two last names. They should learn to speak the language and we should make them take only one last name.” Justice Department officials also said poll workers placed burdens on Hispanic voters that were not imposed on white voters, such as requiring photo identification even though that is not required under Pennsylvania law. Hispanic voters reported that the hostile attitude and rude treatment made them feel uncomfortable and intimidated in the polling place and discouraged them from voting. According to court papers, the Hispanic population in Berks County has more than doubled in the last decade. Census data show that Reading’s population in 2000 was 37.3 percent Hispanic and that most of that group — 63 percent — are U.S. citizens of Puerto Rican descent. Census data also show that about half of Reading’s Puerto Rican population is “first generation,” or born in Puerto Rico. Baylson found that “almost one-third of Reading’s Hispanic citizens do not speak English sufficiently well to participate in the electoral process,” because “many of these persons were educated in Puerto Rico, where the primary language of classroom instruction is Spanish.” Justice Department officials analyzed registered voter lists for Spanish surnames for the year 2001 for precincts in Reading and concluded that 45 of 48 polling places in Reading contain more than 5 percent Hispanic registered voters. In monitoring four elections in Berks County over the past two years, the Justice Department said it found substantial evidence of hostile and unequal treatment of Hispanic and Spanish-speaking voters by poll workers in Reading. It also found that Berks County has very few Hispanic poll workers or poll workers with Spanish-language skills. Lawyers for the county argued that the Justice Department had failed to prove that election officials were violating federal law. “First, the government totally fails to refute — or deal with — the fact that Hispanic voters in the City of Reading have repeatedly elected representatives of their choice, including a member of Reading City Council,” attorneys Gregory M. Harvey and Matthew D. Coble of Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads wrote in a brief opposing the injunction. Harvey and Coble said the government filed the suit “without appearing to understand that the defendants have already provided Hispanic voters with Spanish-language instructions at the two most important parts of the election process, being (a) Spanish-language voter registration forms and (b) Spanish-language operating instructions on the face of all voting machines assigned to Reading City.” The only evidence, they argued, was that “in a few polling places there have been instances of hostile comments by some polling place officers (most of whom are elected by the voters, not selected by defendants) and occasional interference by some polling place officers with the federally established standards for assistance.” But that evidence, they argued, is not evidence of conduct by county election officials. Baylson found that while the county prints some election materials in Spanish, it does not do enough. The county provides bilingual voter registration forms, and 395 of the 407 voting machines used in Reading have some bilingual instructions, Baylson said. “Otherwise, defendants refuse to provide bilingual written election-related materials, including the ballot,” Baylson said. “The following are all printed exclusively in English: signs inside and outside the polling places and voting booths, sample ballots posted inside the polling places, posters instructing voters how to use the electronic voting machines before voting, the text of referenda and charter amendments on the ballot posted in the polling places for voters to view before voting, the elector’s affidavit where challenged voters affirm their eligibility to vote, and the declaration of assistance, where voters declare that they need assistance in marking their ballots or operating the voting machines,” Baylson wrote. Due to the lack of bilingual materials and assistance available at the polling places, Baylson found that many Hispanic voters attempt to bring bilingual friends or family members to the polling places to assist them. But despite a federal law that guarantees such assistance, Baylson found that in some instances, poll workers in Reading have disallowed the practice. The county’s lawyers argued that granting the injunction requested by the Justice Department would be an expansive interpretation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that could lead to courts requiring bilingual ballots and voting materials in every voting precinct in the country with even a single limited-English-proficiency voter of Puerto Rican descent, educated in Spanish in an American flag school in Puerto Rico. Baylson disagreed, saying, “That argument is belied by the fact that the government only seeks injunctive relief in 45 of the 48 voting precincts in Reading where 5 percent or more of the registered voters are Hispanic.” Issuing a preliminary injunction, Baylson found that “the totality of the circumstances demonstrates that Hispanic and Spanish-speaking voters have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the electoral process.” Blaming the county for the attitudes of poll workers, Baylson declared that “election officials have permitted poll workers to openly express hostility to Hispanic voters.”

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