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Ballot boxing

Beverly Hills is within its rights, and maybe its obligations, to print voting materials in Persian.

February 24, 2007

THE UNITED STATES is not at war with Iran, but parts of Beverly Hills are. Many longtime residents are outraged at the city's decision to print its absentee and sample ballots for the March 6 municipal election in both English and Persian, from cover to cover.

Federal law requires a municipality to provide ballot materials in other languages when more than 10,000 (or 5%) of its voting-age citizens are from a single language bloc, one that has comparatively poor literacy rates and language skills. Although the second half of the requirement may not apply to Beverly Hills' 20% Persian population, it's a routine and inexpensive ($7,500) courtesy. What's less routine, and more jarring in this case, is sending translated ballots to all registered voters, not just the targeted foreign-language speakers. But even that's standard practice in cities such as Glendale (Armenian), West Hollywood (Russian) and Long Beach (Khmer).

There's nothing new about hostile reaction to foreign languages appearing alongside English on signs, pamphlets and other official reading material. But there's something more comical about it when it happens in Beverly Hills. Maybe that's because unlike much of the immigrant bashing in the rest of the country, the Beverly Hills clash isn't about (comparatively) rich versus poor but rather (comparatively) rich versus rich.

These aren't entitled natives angry because low-income newcomers are gobbling up their tax dollars and overcrowding their schools; it's established homeowners miffed at other established homeowners, at least in part because they're different. Much of the animosity between longtime residents and the newer population of Iranian immigrants is in reaction to what are pejoratively called "Persian palaces" being built around town by refugees from the Iranian Revolution. So we have the spectacle of people living in European-style manses, many based on film-set fantasy designs that represented the ultimate in ostentation for their time, upset by the gaudy ostentation of the Middle Eastern-style mansions arising next door.

Even the ballot snit was at least partly about aesthetics. One Beverly Hills resident who threw away her sample ballot in disgust told The Times that she thought it looked like "a menu from a Farsi restaurant with a translation in English."

Beverly Hills is completely justified in printing its ballots in Persian. Foreign tongues don't taint the ballot, they demonstrate the values it stands for.

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