More ballots now bilingual

Camden County's growing Hispanic community

Posted: January 31, 2012

For years Camden City, under a state law, has provided sample ballots in Spanish because of its high concentration of residents who list Spanish as their primary language - more than 10 percent of its registered voters.

But now the U.S. Department of Justice is mandating that every municipality in Camden County provide actual ballots, not just samples, and all election material in both English and Spanish.

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, a mandate for bilingual ballots in a county is triggered when:

At least 10,000, or 5 percent of the voting-age citizens of the county speak a language other than English at home and speak English less than "very well."

And the percentage of the limited-English speakers with less than a fifth-grade education exceeds the national average of 1.16 percent.

Of 364,720 voting-age citizens in Camden County, 12,080 are now limited-English proficient, up from 9,145 in 2000, and nearly 18 percent of them have less than a fifth-grade education.

"We represent the community, and that means everyone, regardless of the language they speak. . . . We want to include all the residents" in the voting process, said County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez.

This year, Camden will join Bergen, Cumberland, Essex, Middlesex, Passaic, and Union counties in providing voting information in Spanish, bilingual ballots, and Spanish-speaking poll workers. Starting this year, Bergen will become the first county to offer information in a third language - Korean.

Philadelphia has provided electoral information in Spanish for some time, though it was sued by the federal government in 2006 to correct flaws, including incorrectly translated material, said John K. Tanner, a former Department of Justice voting section chief who was involved in the Philadelphia case.

In Pennsylvania, Lehigh and Berks counties are new additions to the bilingual list.

Hispanics account for 47 percent of Camden City's 77,000 population, according to the 2010 census. "They look for new opportunities" in the suburbs, Rodriguez said.

For example, Cherry Hill saw a 125 percent increase, to 4,005, in its Hispanic population from 2000 to 2010, according to census figures. Among other Camden County municipalities that have seen increases in their Hispanic populations in the last decade are Pennsauken, Lindenwold, and Gloucester Township.

Camden County has yet to calculate the added cost of the bilingual materials and assistance, said John Schmidt, an aide to County Clerk Joseph Ripa. "A general election costs about $130,000 in printing," Schmidt said.

Ripa sent out letters last Tuesday to municipal clerks, school boards, and fire commissioners announcing the new requirements.

The changes are expected to bring a surge of new Latino voters, whom both parties will try to court.

Camden County GOP Chairman James Booth acknowledges that most Latinos in New Jersey are likely Democratic voters, but he hopes that will start to change.

"We've underplayed, as Republicans, those underground topics that appeal to Latino voters, such as strong family and religious values," Booth said.

That might not be a far-fetched idea. The availability of bilingual voting information has changed local political scenes throughout the country, Tanner said.

Democrats made surprising gains after the Justice Department required historically Republican-leaning Harris County, Texas, to provide election material in Vietnamese. "The local Democratic Party saw an opportunity and built a coalition of Vietnamese support," Tanner said.

In 2004, Vietnamese American Hubert Vo was elected to the Texas Legislature, the first Democrat to win there in more than 30 years.

When San Diego County provided information in Spanish, Latino voter registration rose 22 percent, Tanner said.

"When they would see there were poll workers speaking their native language they would say . . . 'This is the greatest country,' " Tanner said. "It's very moving to change people's lives like that."


Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynew.com or on Twitter @InqCVargas.

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