By HEATHER NELLIS
Recorder News Staff
FONDA -- The state Attorney General's office is waiting on Montgomery County to accept an agreement that would memorialize practices put in place during the 2012 election to ensure the city's Puerto Rican population has its rightful access to the polls.
Thomas Trace of the Attorney General's office attended the county's Board of Supervisors Education & Government Committee meeting Tuesday to prompt action on the resolution, which has been tabled since October.
It was tabled again Tuesday upon the recommendation of county Attorney Douglas Landon.
"I think the specific provisions should be gone over and understood what they obligate the county to do before you agree to something that could come back to bite you later on," he told the committee.
Trace said the attorney general's office helped the county Board of Elections develop an effective language access plan to comply with federal laws that protect the voting rights of the nation's Puerto Rican residents.
"The MOA is a necessary step in our efforts to ensure that the BOE complies fully with the Voting Rights Act," Trace said, noting the agreement also outlines dates for periodic meetings and reassessment.
"How about the Italian, Polish, Irish -- what, are there ballots for everyone now?" asked Amsterdam 3rd Ward Supervisor Ronald J. Barone Sr.
The federal laws say in jurisdictions with a significant number of Puerto Rican residents, all written voting materials provided in English also be available in Spanish, that all electronic or paper ballots be translated into Spanish, that Spanish language interpreters be present at all polling places and that voters with limited-English proficiency be permitted to vote with the assistance of the person of their choosing.
Montgomery County was one of 10 counties that became subject to the laws upon the release of the 2010 U.S. Census. The data says in Amsterdam, 26 percent of the population identified itself as Hispanic or Latino -- nearly double the 2000 Census.
Trace said Montgomery County's move toward compliance included providing Spanish translations of election education, materials and ballots, recruitment and assignment of Spanish speaking poll workers, and ensuring that all poll workers are trained to meet the needs of the limited English proficient voters.
Barone expressed concerns about the financial impacts associated with compliance.
"I imagine this is going to consume a lot of money -- where is it going to come from? Is the state going to flip the bill on this? This is another burden on taxpayers. We're in fiscal constraints right now, so I'm just wondering how far we will go on this before we get into bankruptcy?"
Trace was told the costs were minimal.
Democratic Election Commissioner Jamie Duchessi said this week the board ordered 1,000 Spanish language ballots for November's election at 57 cents apiece, for a total cost of $570. Duchessi said the Spanish language ballots cost the same as those in English, of which 24,500 were ordered for $13,965.
Centro Civico of Amsterdam also provides translators at four poll sites as a free, in-kind service that's been provided since 2010, Community Development Initiative Director Julia Caro said on Friday.
Eight Centro Civico staffers, who are bilingual, were trained by the Board of Elections, Caro said, and were split amongst the poll sites this year, two per site for two shifts, 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Caro said the Board of Elections staff identified the sites to be staffed by Centro Civico.
"We have a limited staff, but Centro Civico has continued to support any efforts the Board of Elections. We offer people to facilitate access to the information, because a lot of it is behavioral, so people can get comfortable. You're used to not having the information, so now that the information is available, this year we had a unique opportunity. Rather than having to translate everything verbally, we could actually just engage access to information that was already available."
Caro said she was stationed as a translator at the polling site at Centro Civico during the Nov. 6 election, and believes she saw a greater turnout of the Hispanic/Latino election compared to four years ago.
She hopes it will improve further in future years as voters learn the bilingual materials are available.
At the meeting, Trace was asked if the county is considered compliant with the federal regulations, and he said yes.
"We have full faith in how last election was handled, and the memorandum of understanding is a way of memorializing that," he said.
Amsterdam resident Millie Figueroa said there wasn't a translator where she voted. In a letter to the Recorder after the election, she said she waited in line and overheard a group of Latinos having a discussion about filling out the ballot.
"It was clear they were confused, and they wanted to assure they were correctly filling out the ballot. It was no surprise to me, since I, who is [fluent] in English, was also confused. So I went over, introduced myself and asked if I could be of assistance. I was told this was their first time voting and they wanted to make sure their vote would count. So I explained how the ballot was to be filled and walked them through the process. They left relieved and proud they had exercised their right to vote."
"It is truly unfortunate that in Amsterdam, where 26 percent of the population is Latino, according to the census data, there are no bilingual, bicultural people working at the polls. It would behoove both parties to make a concerted effort to get Latinos to work the polls."
Duchessi said Centro Civico determines which sites are staffed with translators, which conflicts with Caro's earlier statement that the election board determined the sites.
Republican election Commissioner Terrance Smith told the committee Tuesday the board hasn't received any detailed information about the Latino population broken down by voting district, just by ward.
When asked if the attorney general's office agreed with which sites were staffed with translators, Duchessi said "they didn't say we needed to have translators at any other location, they seemed to be fine with the arrangement we have."
The attorney general's office did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking further comment on this story.