- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fairfax County is scrambling to meet new federal requirements to provide language assistance for English-speaking- deficient Hispanic voters — with state and local elections less than four weeks away.

The U.S. Census Bureau announced this week that Fairfax and Montgomery County in Maryland were two of nearly 250 jurisdictions required to do so under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.

Montgomery County has fallen under the requirement since 2002, but Fairfax is the first jurisdiction in the history of Virginia to be covered under Section 203. And while local officials welcomed the news as a way to increase voter outreach, county staff members are under pressure to prepare voting materials and assign bilingual officials to polling places for Nov. 8 elections.

“At the moment, we’re triaging,” said General Registrar Cameron P. Quinn. “We have already downloaded and put copies of the national form in Spanish at our front desk and provided it to our team that does voter registration.”

Ms. Quinn added that they’re working immediately to do more outreach for bilingual election officials and reconsidering assignments of bilingual workers to polling places more readily identifiable as Spanish-speaking.

“As a practical matter at this point, we’re going to do what we can, but we can’t be expected to be held to the same standards as we would for 2012,” she said. “The focus this year is what we can do quickly and easily, but correctly.”

The mandate comes on top of added costs put upon the county by the once-a-decade redistricting process. Ms. Quinn said that just sending new voter cards to every resident could cost up to $250,000. Cost projections for providing language services have not been finalized, but as of Thursday state officials had spent $2,026.40 to translate voting forms at 16 cents per word.

Montgomery County Board of Elections spokeswoman Marjorie Roher said the county for the 2010 elections budgeted approximately $105,000 in additional printing costs for items like sample ballots and signage at polling places to comply with the requirement.

Despite the staff scramble, local officials welcomed the news as a step forward for getting more people to the polls.

“I’m thrilled that this is happening. We have become a more diverse population,” said Arlington County board member J. Walter Tejada. “We are talking about U.S. citizens — we want them to vote. We already have, in this country, a very small population who vote.”

Under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, the counties are among nearly 250 jurisdictions across the country that must provide language assistance during elections for groups who are unable to speak or understand English enough to participate.

The bureau uses a complicated formula based on American Community Service (ACS) and census data that takes into account the number of “limited-English proficient” voting-age residents and then factors in education levels.

The specific data for Fairfax and Montgomery counties were unavailable, a U.S. Census Bureau spokeswoman said.

Despite the historic precedent, the state had actually been preparing for a while.

“We had started this project about a year ago anticipating more than one locality in Virginia would fall under that section,” said Susan Lee with the State Board of Elections. “We’ve identified forms that voters touch — voter registration applications, absentee ballot applications, various other forms. We’ve translated about half of them already.”

“Section 203 is pretty clear — anything that’s election-related we provide in the designated language, so that would be Spanish,” said Margaret Jurgensen, election director for Montgomery County. “The voting equipment has a Spanish-language ballot. We recruit citizens who are bilingual to support people on Election Day and early voting.”

After Montgomery County received the mandate, Prince George’s County decided on their own to do the same thing, said Linda H. Lamone, state administrator of elections.

About 200 other jurisdictions already have to provide bilingual material, which include the entire states of Alaska, Arizona and Texas, under a separate provision of the Voting Rights Act.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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