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U.S., Walnut reach deal on voter rights suit

September 21, 2007|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer

When Walnut city officials were asked before their local election in 2006 whether federal observers could watch the process, the locals said they happily agreed to the chance to receive positive feedback.

"We were a little disappointed that our positive feedback was in the way of a lawsuit," said City Manager Rob Wishner.

A suit filed in April by the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division alleged that the city had violated sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by not translating election materials into Chinese and Korean and by failing to provide other assistance to voters of those ethnicities with limited English skills.

On Thursday, after more than five months of litigation, the federal government and the city reached an agreement to settle the case. The accord calls for all city election materials and notices to be provided in English, Tagalog, Spanish, Korean and Chinese. Federal observers also will monitor Walnut's next two elections, Wishner said.

In a statement, Rena J. Comisac, acting assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, called the agreement a "remedial plan."

City Atty. Michael Montgomery said the settlement agreement did not find fault in any previous election or demonstrate that anyone had been prevented from voting.

Walnut officials said that the city has provided ballots translated into Chinese since 1992 and that the 2006 election, monitored by the federal government, had a ballot printed in all five languages. The Voting Rights Act requires that after the population of voting-age citizens in a single language group reaches a certain threshold in a jurisdiction, specific steps must be taken. For example, all election materials -- including forms, notices and instructions -- provided in English must also be furnished in the relevant languages.

According to the 2000 census, 28.6% of the nearly 22,000 people of voting age in the city were of Chinese descent and 6.3% were of Korean descent. Of these, 65.3% of the Chinese group and 62.3% of the Korean group had limited English skills.

The settlement agreement still requires approval from a panel of three judges and ratification by the five-member City Council.

"It's a good tool for moving forward," Wishner said. "It will also serve, hopefully, as a model for other communities in the region, state and other areas of the country with similar diversity."

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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