- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

A Justice Department lawsuit over voting violations in a southeastern Pennsylvania county is a politically motivated attempt to curry favor with Hispanic voters, a Republican county commissioner charged last week.
"That is the sense that we have here, and we have even been told that the administration will make an example of us," Commissioner Tim Reiver said. "And that is what makes this fight, this lawsuit, indefensible."
The legal action filed Tuesday charges Berks County with not providing Spanish-language assistance to a growing Hispanic population and hostility by poll workers toward non-English-speaking voters.
The Justice Department's lawsuit accuses elections officials of denying Hispanics "with limited English proficiency an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice."
A state Democratic political figure involved with the case said that the Justice Department is operating under the dictates of the administration.
"It is the president's objective to attract Hispanic voters in the next national election," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They are now focusing on this kind of thing because it is what the administration wants."
A Justice Department spokesman said there was no merit to the assertion.
"For the sake of argument, let's take that idea aside, the political issue," the spokesman said. "If you take that aside, how can anyone defend the overt hostility towards Hispanics who don't speak or read English? That has nothing to do with money or politics."
Under the legality of a consent decree, the department's voting rights division oversees thousands of jurisdictions nationwide where there have been voting rights complaints. Most cities simply agree to all the terms and costs set out by the Justice Department.
There is no figure for the number of cases related to Hispanics, a spokesman said.
The voting rights division has never lost a voting rights case, lawyers on both sides said.
The government began investigating Berks County elections in a May 2001 primary. The lawsuit comes after negotiations since that time between the county and the Justice Department.
During that time, county officials said, the Justice Department insisted on a settlement that included the hiring of a coordinator to oversee elections.
"We were told that this coordinator would have the power to terminate the poll worker," Mr. Reiver said, "so we would have one person set up as judge and jury."
The coordinator would require Justice Department approval before hiring, and the worker's salary would be paid by the county.
Mr. Reiver added that the county pays for English as a second language classes and other social programs intended to help Hispanic residents.
The action, Commissioner Mark Scott said, is a "foolish move."
"So many people fold their tent whenever a race issue comes up. The public should be outraged about this heavy-handed approach of government that never really even gave us specifics when it approached us. We were just told to sign" a settlement, he said.
Berks County is 9.7 percent Hispanic, according to the 2000 Census. Almost 60 percent of that group are Puerto Rican.

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