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Ventura County Voting Issue Settled

The elections department had failed to provide enough Spanish-language ballot materials, a federal complaint contended.

August 05, 2004|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County has reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over a complaint alleging that its elections division violated the voting rights of Spanish-speakers, officials announced Wednesday.

The federal government filed a complaint this week in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, alleging that the county, whose population is one-third Latino, failed to provide enough voting materials in Spanish and bilingual poll workers during elections as required under the Voting Rights Act.

The two sides announced that they had entered into a consent decree -- a settlement reached before a lawsuit is filed -- that requires the county to comply with federal law and provides for the Justice Department to monitor county elections, officials said.

"The Voting Rights Act requires the county to make these materials and information available in Spanish, and today's agreement accomplishes that," said R. Alexander Acosta, assistant attorney general for civil rights, in a prepared statement. "This settlement reflects our commitment to protecting the voting rights and ballot access of all Americans."

Elections officials said they were caught off guard by the allegations, especially because they had not received any complaints from residents about a lack of Spanish-language materials. County Clerk and Recorder Philip J. Schmit and the Ventura County Board of Supervisors were named in the complaint.

"You do what you think is fair and open and treat everyone equally," said Gene Browning, the county's assistant registrar of voters. "Considering the county's budget crisis, you try to be as efficient and open as you possibly can. I don't know of anything we're doing that prohibits anyone from registering to vote."

Of the 373,800 registered voters in Ventura County, 7,789 have requested a sample ballot in Spanish, Browning said.

But Justice Department investigators said the county underestimated the number of people who actually need Spanish-language material and assistance.

Relying on U.S. census data showing the number of Latino-surnamed residents in the county, the department estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 people would need Spanish-language materials, including ballots and registration forms, Browning said.

"They're taking the position that if you have a Spanish surname, you don't have enough of a working knowledge of English, and you'll need the materials in Spanish," Browning said.

Eric Holland, a spokesman for the Justice Department in Los Angeles, said the county was initially notified of the allegations in 2002 and the investigation began this year. The decree still must be approved by a three-judge panel.

"While the county can legally wait for approval from the three-judge federal court, it is in its best interest to act as soon as possible," Holland said Wednesday in an e-mail.

The county agreed to immediately make the changes called for in the consent decree and to have an official ballot ready in Spanish in time for the fall elections. For every election after November, the county has to provide a bilingual ballot, the Justice Department said.

Officials estimated the cost of compliance at about $200,000 for November's election.

In addition to providing bilingual poll workers, the county is required to translate written election material into Spanish, including information posted on the election department's website.

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