Fairfax County is the only county in Virginia history with a federal mandate to provide language assistance to English-deficient Hispanic voters in a presidential election — a development delighting activists, straining election officials and worrying those who argue that voters should know English well enough to participate without help.
The Old Dominion's most populous jurisdiction and a critical battleground in a must-have state in the presidential race, last year was required to give the assistance under a section of the Voting Rights Act. The law applies to about 250 jurisdictions across the country.
The October 2011 announcement didn't leave much time to gird for state and local races a month later, but the county prepared furiously — and continues to do so, registrar Cameron Quinn says.
"People who are illiterate in English and bilingual are sometimes illiterate in Spanish," she said. "In a sense, we're messaging to people who aren't going to be picking up messages, literally. Last year, our only option was to create Spanish-language equivalent [signs] and put them up."
She estimated that the federal mandate has cost $75,000 to $125,000, factoring in items such as staff time and copying costs for Spanish signs.
The U.S. Census Bureau uses a complicated formula to determine when a county needs to provide language assistance to voters based on American Community Survey and census data that takes into account the number of "limited-English proficient" voting-age residents, then factors in education levels.
There are about 19.2 million voting-age citizens covered under the provision — a 43 percent increase from 10 years ago.
Robert Vandervoort, executive director of ProEnglish, an advocacy group pushing for English to be adopted as the official language of the U.S., said bilingual ballots should not be allowed.
"The fact that we are requiring ballots to be printed in languages other than English when, if you have to become citizens, you have to learn English … it's definitely a disconnect," he said. "I just think it's sort of a misguided approach. In reality, it's discouraging the assimilation our country needs."
Mr. Vandervoort added there's a concern the effort also could be intended to allow noncitizens to vote.
But Cesar del Aguila, chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, said if that's the case, it would be news to him.
"[T]he reality is there is no example I have seen that people have shown me where there is a serious issue of voter fraud," he said. "If it's out there, I want to see it."
The state has a new voter-identification law intended to prevent voter fraud. Under the law, which took effect July 1, voters must provide identification at the polls or their ballots will be counted provisionally. Previously, they could simply sign a sworn affidavit affirming their identity. The law also expands the forms of identification voters can use to prove their identity to include student ID cards, bank statements and utility bills.
When Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, signed the law, he also issued an executive directive to the State Board of Elections requiring it to mail new voter registration cards to every active registered voter in the state.
Ms. Quinn said her office works with the county's public affairs shop to develop new press contacts, and she has noticed an uptick in inquiries when Spanish-language television stations run election stories on the state's new voter-ID law.
Many Democrats have argued that the law, similar to but less stringent than those in other states, could suppress turnout among people less likely to have readily-available identification, including the poor and the elderly.
The Fairfax County Democratic Committee recently launched a multilingual campaign that includes online videos and brochures in Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and English, as well as brochures in Chinese and Arabic to make the public aware of the state's new identification requirements.
"Our goal here in the county is no provisional ballots on Election Day," Mr. del Aguila said. "The bell curve of the people we are targeting are not aware of any requirements. Specifically, we're targeting the more diverse segment of the county."
Mr. del Aguila, whose family has ties to Peru, counted his parents among the people who stand to benefit from the federal mandate.
"A lot of my family, they're American, but they're just more comfortable reading Spanish," he said. "It's not that they're lazy or not proud Americans. They're just at an age where it's more difficult to learn a new language."
The State Board of Elections also has retooled its website to provide voters with information on the new state law and has launched an outreach campaign that includes television, print, radio, billboards, bus shelters and bus ads.
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