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Board of Supervisors to revisit Spanish-speaking resolution

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 - Updated: 4:30 PM

By HEATHER NELLIS

Recorder News Staff

FONDA -- The threat of litigation has the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors reconsidering its stance on an agreement with the state attorney general's office on practices for Spanish-speaking voters.

A month after letting a resolution die on the floor that memorialized the county Board of Elections' practices under federal regulations, the supervisors' Education & Government Committee last week reintroduced it, and moved it to the full board for its consideration next week.

Though county Attorney Douglas Landon said he still finds the resolution "unnecessary," he said he advised the board of the ramifications of bypassing it.

"I wanted to make sure the board was aware that it was likely the attorney general's office would commence litigation against the county if we didn't accept the Memorandum of Agreement," Landon said. "I did some checking into that with various sources, and it turned out that was the case."

Landon initially advised against taking any action on the resolution at the committee's February meeting, instead encouraging the board to follow the regulations as it normally would.

The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides that no citizen educated in American flagship schools in Puerto Rico can be denied the right to vote because of his or her lack of English proficiency.

The law says in jurisdictions with a significant number of Puerto Rican residents, all written voting materials provided in English also be available in Spanish, that all electronic or paper ballots be translated into Spanish, that Spanish language interpreters be present at all polling places and that voters with limited-English proficiency be permitted to vote with the assistance of the person of their choosing.

Montgomery County was one of 10 counties that became subject to the laws upon the release of the 2010 U.S. Census. The data says in Amsterdam, 26 percent of the population identified itself as Hispanic or Latino -- nearly double the 2000 Census.

In February, Landon questioned why a memorandum was necessary -- "Do we need a Memorandum of Agreement that says we agree to follow the law?"

"It's tantamount to a contract," Landon told the board at the February meeting. "If areas of it appear unnecessary or problematic, it exposes the county to problems down the road. It's my recommendation to be cautious with it. The board has already worked hard to get to this point."

Landon said Tuesday the county has still not received "a definitive answer" whether it's compliant with the federal regulations, but attorney general's office Spokesman Michelle Hook said it isn't.

"I wouldn't classify it as compliant yet, but there is a willingness," Hook said. "Number one, the county hasn't signed the agreement, and number two, the changes [put in place for the November election] didn't go far enough. It was a good start, but considering the high Puerto Rican population, there were other things they needed to do at the polling places."

Hook declined to specifically list which regulations the county hasn't complied with yet. She said the attorney general's staff met with county officials Friday, and "seemed ready and willing to comply."

"My own outlook hasn't changed, but in a practical matter, it would be expensive -- and a headache -- for the county to deal with defending the litigation," Landon said. "If the [attorney general] sued, it would effectively mean Montgomery County's taxpayers are paying to sue Montgomery County, and the taxpayers paying to defend Montgomery County.

"In the grand scheme of things, the document is most likely something the Board of Elections can deal with, but it comes down to a question of whether it's necessary," Landon added.

     

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