Bilingual workers receive extra training under a court order
By Charles Levin, clevin@VenturaCountyStar.com
November 8, 2005

A required training session last week for more than 70 Election Day precinct workers normally would have taken two hours.

But as it drew to a close, Danny Chavez, a bilingual coordinator for Ventura County's Elections Division, asked 16 of the workers -- those who speak fluent English and Spanish -- to stay behind.

For 15 minutes, Chavez went over rules that specifically apply to bilingual election workers: Announce the opening and closing of the polls in English and Spanish. Always wear your ID tag, which says "I Speak Spanish" in both languages, and make sure you have ballots printed in Spanish.

"If you don't get any, you should be alarmed," Chavez told the small crowd at Community Presbyterian Church in Ventura. "Give us a call."

The speech was new, added last year after Ventura County agreed to improve services for Spanish-speaking voters under a court-ordered "consent decree" that settled a federal voting-rights lawsuit against the county. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the county in August 2004, charging a lack of bilingual services and materials. Rather than fight the suit, the county agreed to the consent decree.

Chavez's job was mandated by the decree. So were a host of Election Day signs, sample ballots and other literature printed in Spanish.

More than a year after a federal panel of judges approved the decree, the county has fully complied with the order, County Clerk-Recorder Phil Schmit said.

'Cost us a lot of extra money'

"We've done everything they've asked of us, without a great deal of extra work, but it has cost us a lot of extra money" in printing expenses, Schmit said.

Justice Department spokes-man Eric Holland on Monday agreed that the county is cooperating with the federal government on the decree. He declined to elaborate.

An unspecified number of federal officials will monitor Ventura County polls today as part of the court order, Holland said. They also monitored precincts last year.

When federal officials first contacted the county about the lawsuit, the issue appeared to come out of the blue. No one had ever complained about any problems, election officials said, but the Board of Supervisors complied to avoid costly litigation.

Before the court order, voters who spoke only Spanish received sample ballots in their native language but had to vote on English ballots.

In November 2004, county officials began providing ballots in English or Spanish. The court actually ordered bilingual ballots, but they won't work with the county's current lever-operated, punch-card system. In June 2006, the county will get new voting machines that can handle bilingual ballots, Schmit said.

For now, poll workers are asking voters if they want an English or Spanish ballot. The question, however, hasn't always gone over well.

After an angry reaction from one man last year, "I said, 'I'm sorry, but we have to ask,' " said Rosie Jacinto, 55, a county employee.

When all ballots are printed in both Spanish and English next June, "it is going to take that pressure away from people," Schmit said. "They will not have to declare what they want in front of the poll worker."

Among Ventura County's 378,671 voters registered for today's election, 8,335, or roughly 2.2 percent, asked for Spanish-language materials by checking a box on their registration forms, said Gene Browning, the county assistant registrar. A total of 426,000 ballots were printed for the election, including 22,000 in Spanish, Browning said.

The toughest hurdle in meeting the consent decree might have been recruiting bilingual poll workers. The number of bilingual workers is tied to the number of registered voters with Spanish surnames, said Judith Rodriguez, Chavez's predecessor and now the county's elections program supervisor.

The county needed more than 300 bilingual workers for today's election. Working with Latino groups, the cities and others, officials said it wasn't that hard to find workers in Ventura, Oxnard, Santa Paula and Fillmore, cities where the Latino population makes up anywhere from 24 to 71 percent of the population.

Officials cobbled them together

It was harder in Simi Valley, where Latinos make up 16.8 percent of the population, Rodriguez said. Convincing bilingual workers from west Ventura County to staff polls in Simi Valley was not easy, either, she said.

"The majority of people did not want to drive at six in the morning to another city and work 151/2 hours," Rodriguez said.

The county needed 35 bilingual election workers in Simi Valley. Officials cobbled them together from a combination of students and city employees, Chavez said.

"And we're hoping it stays that way," Chavez said, noting that several workers in other cities called Monday to cancel their commitment. "Usually we have a standby election officer on call. Simi Valley is very limited in that respect."

The decree also required the county to form an advisory committee. Attendance at committee meetings started off fine, with nearly 40 people, Schmit said, but it has since waned to 10 or fewer.

Danny Carrillo, district director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the committee got off to a good start, but he criticized the county for not keeping committee members informed about meetings.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of outreach," said Carrillo, 44, of Ventura.

The court order does not mandate how often the committee should meet, but the county notifies every organization on a lengthy e-mail list about any meeting, Browning said.

Yvonne Gutierrez, executive director of El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, a Latino advocacy group, praised the county's efforts. "From what I saw, they did more outreach" in recruiting bilingual poll workers, said Gutierrez, who helped with Spanish translations on various signs, pamphlets and other literature.