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A Flawed Democracy

Los Angeles’ well-documented failure to make elections accessible for immigrant voters prompted a visit from the U.S. Department of Justice to monitor last Tuesday’s city election. Among the complaints heard by the Civil Rights Division: lack of bilingual assistance, late poll openings and poorly trained or rude poll workers. The monitors informed the city clerk of their intent to review procedures for Election Day, during which 384,489 of 1.47 million registered voters cast a ballot — a 26 percent turnout, down from 33 percent in the 2001 primary election. Alberto Ruisanchez, a Justice Department attorney, met with community representatives in the 9th Council District afterward to hear their grievances, which included poll workers’ requests for identification and failure to instruct Spanish-speaking voters on how to cast a provisional ballot. A Justice Department investigation is under way. City Clerk Frank Martinez said his office received more than 3,000 calls on Election Day, 913 of which resulted in a “trouble ticket,” requiring some sort of response from city representatives in 559 precincts. According to Martinez, the city enlisted 7,000 volunteers, who were paid a stipend of $55 per day ($75 for the head poll worker at each location), along with 250 inspectors and 200 troubleshooters in the field, who received $300 per day. Six hundred city employees also received regular pay plus overtime to staff the polls, as part of the City Employee Poll Worker Program. “Our volunteers do a tremendous job, but how do you make sure 8,000 people show up on time?” said Martinez, who calls guaranteeing equal access to the city’s 1,892 precincts a major undertaking. The majority of the calls received were about poll location and changes in the precincts, said Martinez — some were as minor as running out of “I Voted” stickers. Yet some 328 calls related to poll workers not showing up on time; 200 involved a lack of supplies or equipment failure; 109 claimed problems in setting up the voting booths; 82 cited access issues, such as lack of parking or improper lighting; 82 complained of inadequacies, such as names not appearing on the voting roster and failure to instruct on provisional-voting procedures; and 45 were miscellaneous problems, such as poll workers having no ride to the ballot-collection depot. Justice Department officials would not confirm the number of monitors, nor would a spokesman comment on the investigation’s scope or duration. Community representatives who met with Ruisanchez said he told them that he observed several of the 27 complaints of improper poll-worker behavior, such as rudeness to voters, and several of the 18 polls where there was inadequate language assistance for non-English-speaking voters. In addition to troubleshooters, who shuttled back and forth between seven to 10 polling places each, Martinez was forced to dispatch city officials, including members of the City Attorney’s Office, to three locations in the 9th Council District, which had seven of the 17 complaints of electioneering citywide. Improper signage or fliers being passed out within 100 feet of a polling place, destruction of candidates’ signs and one report of a candidate’s chief of staff leaving a polling place with a voter list were among the complaints, Martinez said. Police took a report of phone lines being cut in front of one campaign headquarters. “Remedial action is limited to what you can observe,” he said. “We can’t undo something once it has happened, and it is hard to confirm what if anything actually occurred.” Some polls in the 9th District did not open until after 10 a.m., according to a list of complaints faxed to the city clerk. Others had changed locations in the days leading up to the election, leaving voters confused. At Good Shepherd Baptist Church, on West 53rd Street, observers reported poll workers preventing voters from entering the voting booth with small children under the age of 7. At another location, reports of poll workers asking for identification could have been related to a state law adopting the federal standard for first-time voters who registered without identification, according to Marcelo Gaete, a senior director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund. Or it could have resulted from overzealousness by poll workers who do not understand voting procedures. “Los Angeles is not the worst place, but we could do better,” Gaete said. “Besides bilingual voting assistance, recruiting and training workers is a major challenge. Is it systematic or is it related to lack of participation? The city was still trying to line up polling places with less than a week before the election. Can you imagine being a working stiff who shows up at 7 p.m., and they’re not open? That person is not going to risk being late to work, and they likely won’t come back.” Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires that certain jurisdictions designated by the Census Bureau afford bilingual voting assistance. Los Angeles was first required to assist Spanish-speaking voters from 1975 to 1984, but was not required to provide assistance again until 1992, when it also was required to assist Chinese, Filipino, Japanese and Vietnamese voters. In 2002, the Census Bureau added a requirement for Korean-language assistance. The Help America Vote Act also requires that voters be instructed on their right to cast a provisional ballot, in the event they show up at a polling place where they are not registered. Election officials then confirm the voters’ eligibility on provisional ballots after the polls close. “Voters are confused by that,” Gaete said. “And I don’t think poll workers understand it either.” Steve Reyes, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, added, “The city reached out to community groups for assistance in locating polling places and volunteers, but it could have happened sooner. Some of the translated ballots arrived too late to make any substantive changes. We have to review where bilingual assistance was offered and where the highest concentration of voters who need it are located. Low turnout or not, 100 percent compliance with Section 203 should be the goal. But recruitment and training of volunteers, and volunteering itself, are thankless tasks.”

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