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The Record, Bergen County, NJ

Democracy In Two Voices ; With Latino Numbers Rising, Bergen Ballots Go Bilingual


October 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002 North Jersey Media Group Inc. All rights reserved. 

Months after taking his oath, Gabriel Castellanos is ready to fulfill one of the most important duties of a U.S. citizen and vote in a November election.

For the Colombian native, who became a citizen this summer after 13 years in the United States, the timing could not have been better.

Next month ballots will appear in Spanish in every one of Bergen County's 554 election districts, a change that reflects the latest census figures and is required by federal law. Bergen is now one of seven New Jersey counties where more than 5 percent of voting-age citizens speak Spanish and do not "speak or understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process."

"If it touches a voter, it now has to be in Spanish and English in Bergen County," said County Clerk Kathleen Donovan, who called the resulting exercise in mass translation "fascinating." "We had to take everything apart and put it back together again."

Castellanos, who at times struggles with English, is looking forward to reading voting instructions in his native tongue. And if questions remain, bilingual poll workers are expected to be on hand in districts with sizable Hispanic communities.

"I think this is going to make a big difference" in persuading Spanish-speaking citizens to vote, said Castellanos, a Cliffside Park resident and the owner of Gabriel's Hispanic Cafe in Hackensack. "We Hispanics contribute a lot to the improvement of this country, and this shows [the government] is taking us into account."

According to the 2000 census, the Hispanic population increased 83 percent in Bergen County since 1990. Hispanics are now slightly more than 10 percent of the county's population.

There are many who believe ballots should be only in English.

"We've always been mystified by the bilingual ballot mandates, because generally you have to learn English to become a citizen, and only citizens can vote," said Jim Boulet, Jr., executive director of English First in Springfield, Va. "It's kind of an endless can of worms that doesn't help people vote more intelligently, but does cost taxpayers a lot of money."

Although applicants for U.S. citizenship must know at least some English to pass an oral and written test, some Spanish speakers say reading how to use voting machines or how to fill out absentee ballots can be intimidating for those not fluent in English.

"I think it's been a problem for many people," said Rose Asaf, a 68-year-old native of Puerto Rico who volunteers at the Americas Unidas Multicultural Senior Activity Center in Hackensack. "Sometimes, if you speak Spanish, there's no one to guide you, and if you don't [vote] often you can get confused."

The challenges county election officials face are many: At the top of the list are ensuring accurate translations, hiring bilingual staff, and getting the word out that materials will now appear in espanol. For the sight-impaired, the county plans to provide audio instructions in Spanish.

Many of the documents, such as voter registration forms and absentee ballots, have already been available in bilingual form in recent years. Even so, printing costs are expected to rise tens of thousands - and perhaps even hundreds of thousands - of dollars to account for additional paperwork this year, Donovan said.

Bilingual documents won't be a surprise to everyone. For years, they have been mandatory in districts where at least 10 percent of residents were Hispanic. Englewood, Hackensack, Fairview, and Bergenfield all have had such districts. Also, districts where at least 6 percent of the population speaks Spanish must be staffed by a bilingual poll worker this year. The county Board of Elections hired 31 bilingual workers for the last November election, but has not yet determined how many additional workers it will need this year or where they will be stationed.

In a sense, Hispanic advocacy groups say, the federal election folks are merely catching up with political campaigns. Candidates, from the president down to local representatives, have been making bilingual appeals for many years.

Yet Jesus Galvis, a Hackensack councilman and director of the Bergen County Hispanic Advisory Commission, believes publicizing the election changes could go far in attracting more Spanish-speaking voters. To date, the county has placed announcements in Spanish- language publications and spread the word through Latino advocacy groups.

"In the past, many people didn't vote," Galvis said. "They didn't know what to do, especially when the county switched to new machines."

But Pablo Fernandez, who left his native Colombia 42 years ago, predicts a muted response to the increase in bilingual poll workers.

"Voting machines are very easy to use," the Hackensack merchant said. "If Spanish-speaking people have questions, they just ask their friends. I never saw anybody have a problem."

The candidates' names remain unchanged in either language, but the explanation of a bond ordinance, for instance, could be confusing to a Spanish speaker who is otherwise at ease in conversational English.

Critics, such as Boulet, say the translations can actually create confusion. He said significant errors have popped up in some government-commissioned translations. "And with referendum questions, important nuances can be lost," he said.

Bergen officials say they've learned from the mistakes of neighboring Passaic County, where elections have been monitored since 1999 under a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. In that case, federal officials said Latinos were being denied equal access to the election process.

"I don't anticipate that we'll have those problems," Donovan said.

Federal supervision in Passaic County ended in May, said Maria Havasy, county elections board chairwoman. This year the county designated 13 additional districts, including some in Hawthorne, Wayne, West Paterson, and Totowa, where bilingual poll workers must be stationed. More than half the county's 288 election districts are considered bilingual.

About 30 percent of Passaic County's population is Latino.

Peter Incardone, chairman of Bergen County's Board of Elections, said he and fellow commissioners aren't sweating the feds' demands. The board began stationing bilingual board workers in select towns three years ago.

"When the Department of Justice people met with us they were pleasantly surprised," Incardone said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman did not return two calls from The Record. But the federal order will mean some extra work for the board, whose duties also include hiring poll workers and distributing absentee ballots.

Officials said hiring has become easier since last year, when a day's pay for poll workers doubled to $200 because of a change in state law. But some difficulties persist.

"In the last two years we've had bilingual workers, but there weren't enough," Galvis said. "This year we're going to different churches and Latino groups in order to recruit these people."

Donovan, whose office employs several bilingual staff members, said one of her main concerns is double-checking outside agencies' translations for accuracy.

"I have nightmares that there will be an election where a candidate loses by one vote, and someone will say, 'The Spanish translation was wrong,'-" she said.

Donovan has alerted staff members to the possibility that some county residents will react angrily to the changes, especially in towns where there are few Latinos. The office plans to refer such callers to their representatives in Washington.

Korean-speaking poll workers already assist voters in certain districts in Fort Lee, Palisades Park, and Leonia. As the county's Korean community grows in those towns, election materials likely will appear in Korean as well.

But that's a challenge for another day, Donovan said.

"Down the road I'd expect we'd have other languages, but we have eight years until the next Census," she said.

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