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.
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