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U.S. Orders More Florida Counties to Provide Spanish Voter Services

October 13, 2011 - 6:00pm

Four more Florida counties have been ordered to provide Spanish-language services to voters in a policy that a national pro-English group calls "ridiculous."

The addition of Lee, Osceola, Palm Beach and Polk counties brings to 10 the number of counties required to furnish Spanish translations and assistance under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Broward, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Orange counties remain on the list.

The requirements -- all unfunded federal mandates -- come at untold added expense to the state and affected local jurisdictions.

"I expect that there will be additional costs, but right now its too early to say how much that might be," said Chris Cate, spokesman for the secretary of state's office.

Bill Cowles, supervisor of elections for Orange County, said his office has been furnishing Spanish-language services since 1992, when the Orlando area's fast-growing Hispanic population triggered the federal mandate. Because the county prints all its materials bilingually, Cowles said he could not break out a separate cost for the Spanish component.

"We're printing the same number of materials as we would otherwise," he said.

But Cowles acknowledged that bilingualism doubles the length of the ballot, and adds marginal costs.

"We see significant increases in general elections. We have to go to multiple ballots then," he said.

Lee County went bilingual after the 2000 Census, when the Hispanic population nearly met the federally mandated Spanish requirement. So Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington does not anticipate incurring the start-up costs of other newly added counties.

But she noted that Lee's bulkier absentee ballots -- with twice as many pages -- are more expensive to mail.

"Every time you add a page, it costs," she said.

Though Florida voters, by constitutional amendment, certified English as the state's official language in 1988, that does not bar Washington from imposing its foreign-language requirements.

Nor does it matter that the federal government's own 104-year-old law stipulates that naturalized citizens "demonstrate understanding of the English language, including the ability to read, write and speak English."

The ostensible rationale for second-language accommodations was that certain "native resident populations" had historically unequal access to educational opportunities. These groups originally included American Indians, Alaskans and Spanish speakers.

African, Middle Eastern and non-English European languages were excluded because these populations were not "native resident populations."

But in one of the many contradictions in the law, Asian and eastern Indian speakers were later added to the second-language list.

In another twist, the "temporary" law has been renewed three times, most recently in 2007 for a 25-year period.

"This is multicultural ideology imposed by a minority. It goes down the path of dividing ourselves by language," said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of ProEnglish, based in Arlington, Va.

Relying on Census Bureau data that count ethnicity and track household language use, but not citizenship, the voting law now requires 248 counties in 25 states to provide alternative languages on all election-related materials. Other language assistance ranges from fielding phone inquiries to accompaniment in the polling booth.

Those numbers are down from 296 counties in 30 states following the 2000 census.

Glades County in South Florida was one of the counties taken off the list. It formerly had been required to provide customized service to its Native American population.

The government designates counties where "limited English proficiency" residents account for 5 percent of the population or total at least 10,000 residents.

"Nobody really knows how [the government] comes up with its figures, and they're immune to challenge," McAlpin says.

But the government accountability office, in two separate studies, found that the language accommodation law is both costly to taxpayers and rarely used by voters.

Florida election officials say they have not calculated the costs of compliance.

"Assigning a cost to voting materials for one given language cannot be estimated at this time," said Christina White, deputy supervisor of elections in Miami-Dade, which has been ordered to provide Spanish-language voter services for decades.

McAlpin, though, wasn't so sanguine -- or evasive.

"This is a big financial hit for Florida," he said of the addition of four counties.

Los Angeles County pegged its multilingual bill at $3.3 million in 2002. At that time, Los Angeles was supplying voting materials and services in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Filipino.

"It's ridiculous," McAlpin said. "No [federal] money is provided while cities and counties are declaring bankruptcy. Congress is tone deaf to these unfunded mandates."

But Liliam Lopez, president of the South Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, sees value in accommodating foreign speakers.

"Even though they work and pay taxes, they get a little confused with all the amendments. You want people to participate in the political process, as long as they are legal residents," Lopez said from Miami.

In Orlando, Cowles, who heads an election office where one-third of the staff is Hispanic, said his biggest concern is the length of the ballot.

"It's driven by how many questions the Legislature puts on ballot. There are seven amendments now, and that could grow," Cowles said. "For 2012, we're looking at a three-page [bilingual] ballot for the first time."

Contact Kenric Ward at or at (772) 801-5341.

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