The Magazine

Se Habla Lawsuit?

Another reason to dislike the Justice Department.

Mar 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 27 • By EDWARD BLUM
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"A City of Homes . . . A City for Business . . . A City Rich with History and Multi-cultural Diversity"--so reads the motto of Springfield, Massachusetts (pop. 150,000), halfway between New York and Boston. With an ethnic mix of blacks, whites, Hispanics, and others reflected in its local government, Springfield, like most of New England today, supports liberal Democrats at the polls. In the 2006 election, for instance, nearly 70 percent of Springfield voters backed Deval Patrick, the African-American Democratic nominee for governor.

So it must have come as a shock to city officials when the U.S. Department of Justice slammed Springfield with a lawsuit claiming, among other transgressions, "rude treatment" of Spanish-speaking voters in 2005. According to the complaint filed in federal court, some "Spanish-speaking voters have left the polls without casting a ballot due to the absence of bilingual assistance." The Justice Department asked the court to require the city to beef up its assistance, notably by hiring more Spanish-speaking poll workers and developing a plan to ensure that Hispanics "understand, learn of, and participate in all phases of the electoral process."

Springfield, like hundreds of other towns and counties around the country, is subject to Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act because, among many other complex criteria, more than 5 percent of the city's population speaks a particular foreign language. The law requires covered jurisdictions to translate all printed election materials into that language and provide foreign-language assistance at the polls. In its six years in office, the Bush administration has filed 19 lawsuits charging noncompliance with Section 203, more than were filed in all the years from 1978 to 2000 combined.

Setting aside for a moment the interesting point that even foreign-born voters should be able to understand their ballots since the ability to speak English is a condition for gaining American citizenship, it is fair to ask how much trouble non-English-speaking voters actually encounter at the polls. If the data from Springfield are any indication, the answer is very little. Not a single Spanish-speaking voter in Springfield had complained in the election that prompted the Justice Department to sue.

While this may seem puzzling at first, it turns out that complaints on the ground are not what trigger an enforcement action. Instead, Justice bureaucrats regularly comb through voter registration rolls in covered jurisdictions, counting Spanish, say, or Chinese or Vietnamese surnames; then they count the number of foreign language-speaking poll workers; and if the ratios don't comport with their ideal percentages, they sue. No phone calls, no warning letters, no inquiries about extenuating circumstances. They go straight to court.

Springfield entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department that required the town to triple the number of bilingual poll workers it hires and to allow federal observers to monitor the next few elections. The government sent in a small army of monitors to observe the first election after this agreement, a primary in September 2006. Springfield's city attorney, Ed Pikula, told the Associated Press, "It's unfair to saddle the city with that type of intrusion." And it cost the American taxpayer tens of thousands of dollars.

How did the government run up such an exorbitant tab? The Department of Justice sent four employees from Washington to Springfield at a cost of $3,488 for travel, room, and board. The Office of Personnel Management sent in 45 employees from around the country, some from the Northeast, but many from as far away as California and Florida, according to sources who were in Springfield during the election. Assuming similar costs for both agencies, the monitoring operation cost at least $40,000.

And how helpful to Springfield's Spanish-speaking voters was this exercise? According to the observation reports filed by these 45 people, there were 92 instances of bilingual "voter assistance." That is, 92 voters out of more than 16,000 said something to a poll worker in a language other than English. They may have asked a question about the ballot, or made a comment on the weather; regardless, the interaction was recorded as a "person receiving language assistance." This monitoring didn't come cheap at $435 per voter. If Washington sends the same number of observers for the general election, where turnout is higher, the monitoring cost will still run more than $100 per voter assisted.