December 19, 2014

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US rules Lorain County Board of Elections serves Spanish-speaking voters well

SHEFFIELD TWP. — The U.S. Department of Justice no longer will monitor the Lorain County Board of Elections for compliance with a 2011 agreement designed to improve access of Spanish-speaking voters to the ballot box.

“Defendants have fulfilled their obligations under the Agreement constant with the provisions of the Voting Rights Act,” federal prosecutors wrote in court documents filed Friday. “Defendants have agreed to continue providing bilingual ballots and election materials, employing and utilizing bilingual poll workers, and working with the Spanish-Language Advisory Group.”

Elections board Director Paul Adams said although federal oversight ended with the court filing, the county will continue to offer the same services the agreement called for, including bilingual poll workers and Spanish-language ballots.

“From the standpoint of the voters in the county, they will not see any difference,” Adams said.

The Justice Department launched its investigation into alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires equal access to the voting booth for Spanish-speaking citizens educated at American-flag schools, such as in Puerto Rico, in 2010.

There were 17,580 people of Puerto Rican descent living in Lorain County, mostly concentrated in Lorain, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, giving the county one of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the nation outside of Puerto Rico.

The Justice Department estimated three years ago that nearly one-third of the county’s voting-age Puerto Rican residents had limited proficiency with the English language.

Although elections board officials argued that they had taken numerous steps before the Justice Department got involved to provide access to Spanish-speaking voters, including translators from both political parties to assist voters, the federal government disagreed.

“By failing to provide-Spanish-language election materials and consistent, adequate Spanish-language assistance during elections, defendants have denied Lorain County citizens who were educated in Puerto Rico the right to cast an informed vote and impaired their ability to participate effectively in the electoral process,” the Justice Department wrote in the lawsuit that accompanied the agreement in 2011.

Elections officials decided in 2011 that it would be easier to accept the agreement with the Justice Department rather than wage a pricey legal battle.

The agreement had been set to expire at the end of March unless the federal government sought to continue enforcing it.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the decision to stop monitoring the Lorain County Board of Elections.

Also on Friday, the Justice Department terminated an agreement it had reached with the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in 2010 that had required elections official there to take similar steps to address Spanish-language voting access.

That agreement also had been slated to expire at the end of March. Justice Department attorneys wrote they would not seek to extend it because Cuyahoga County “satisfactorily addressed” their concerns.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.