Pitkin County may need ballots in Spanish
August 11, 2011
ASPEN – Pitkin County may take the better-safe-than-sorry approach and provide ballots and other election materials in Spanish as well as English for the November election.
With deadlines for printing materials fast approaching, the county isn’t likely to receive word from the federal government in time to know whether it meets criteria that would require it to provide materials in Spanish to voters, according to Dwight Shellman III, county election manager. He said he had planned to order envelopes for the county’s mail-only election this week; some of them may need to be printed in Spanish, or Shellman must order a second batch later, once he knows for sure.
Pitkin is one of 16 additional counties in the state that has been identified as potentially meeting the threshold that triggers the need for election materials printed in Spanish under the federal Voting Rights Act, based on 2010 census data.
The county’s population of voting-age residents is 12,779, while the number of residents who identified themselves as Spanish speakers who are not totally proficient in English numbered 716 in the last census – or 5.6 percent of the population.
Any county with a minority-language population of 5 percent or more residents who are of voting age (18 or older) may be covered by the provision of the federal law (there’s also a minimum education criterion), but Pitkin County has no way of knowing if its 716 Spanish speakers are U.S. citizens, or how many of them are old enough to vote, Shellman said. If enough of them aren’t citizens, or aren’t of voting age, then the county wouldn’t have to comply with the law as it relates to minority-language voting.
If the county does exceed the 5 percent threshold, it would only be subject to the dual language requirement if the percentage of electors in the minority language group who have not completed the fifth grade is higher than the national rate of 1.35 percent.
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“We have no way to figure that out,” Shellman said.
The U.S. Department of Justice now expects to notify the county of its status by late September, but Sept. 2 is the deadline to certify the November ballot and Shellman expects to place an order for ballots with a printer shortly after that date.
“At some point, we’re just going to have to say, we’re going to have to spend a little more now than not comply with an important federal law,” he said.
A waiver from the Department of Justice for this year is an outside possibility, Shellman added.
He guessed the cost to the county to provide materials and published notices in Spanish this year might not be significant, but said the sum will be considerably more in 2012, when a primary and general election are scheduled. The materials include ballots, sample ballots, instructions and TABOR notices. The county would also need Spanish-speaking poll workers, Shellman said.
It’s possible that the entire state could be ordered to provide dual-language ballots because the state’s overall population could qualify under the Voting Rights Act, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. If state questions have to be published in Spanish as well as English, it would make sense to offer a ballot that provides the local questions in Spanish, as well, Shellman said.
“If I ever heard about a Spanish voter who decided not to vote because they couldn’t read the ballot, I’d personally be upset,” Shellman added, though he acknowledged some would argue a U.S. citizen should be proficient in English. That debate aside, providing minority-language ballots is a matter of law, he noted.
The 1973 Voting Rights Act requires areas with large Latino, Asian, American Indian and Alaskan populations to provide voting materials in the languages spoken by those populations.
In Colorado, 10 counties, including Denver County, already are required to provide dual-language ballots or interpreters, according to The Associated Press. Two counties, Montezuma and LaPlata, provide Ute and Navajo interpreters because those languages are spoken rather than written.