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The Philadelphia Inquirer

A Battle Over Bilingual Ballot

By Carrie Budoff

May 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved. 

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.

The clash in Reading was tantamount to a mini-skirmish over the changing American landscape. Republican commissioners in Berks County used the issue to press for the dominance of the English language. Hispanics, as the county's largest minority, used it to fight for what the law allowed.

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 tocertain 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.

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