Camden County seeks bilingual poll workers to aid growing Latino population

Posted: January 28, 2013

The Camden County Board of Elections is searching for bilingual poll workers to help the area's growing number of Latinos cast their ballots in the June primary.

But how many are needed is an informed guess, determined by surveying names of registered voters rather than querying them in advance or analyzing census data.

In November, Camden County joined six other New Jersey counties required to provide Spanish-language materials at all polls rather than just in selected precincts. The bilingual-ballot mandate, created under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, is based on census data and the county easily met the threshold.

Materials in another language are required when more than 10,000 eligible voters in a county - or at least 5 percent of its adult citizens - are proficient in that language and describe themselves as unable to speak English "very well."

In 2010, 12,080 of Camden County's 364,720 eligible voters were Spanish-speakers with limited English proficiency, up from 9,145 in 2000.

Nearly 18 percent of that group also had less than a fifth-grade education - sharply higher than the 1.16 percent national average among adults, another criterion for the mandate.

Around the country, research has shown that availability of bilingual material and poll "helpers" can lead to a surge in minorities voting.

In 2005, when 1,000 bilingual poll workers were added in San Diego County, Calif., as the result of a U.S. Justice Department suit, Hispanic and Filipino voter registration there grew more than 20 percent.

"Even if you understand English, [ballot] questions are hard to understand," said Martin Perez, president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, an advocacy group. "The right to vote is such a fundamental right. It should be easy. . . . Make it language-friendly."

In Puerto Rico, where election materials are in Spanish, voter turnout is 80 percent, he said.

New Jersey does not ask voter-registration applicants their ethnicity or race. Estimating Latino turnout last fall is a guess, made by checking the names of voters against a list of Hispanic surnames provided by the state Justice Department.

Camden County - where most Spanish-speaking eligible voters are Puerto Rican - has not chosen to do that. At The Inquirer's request, the county did an analysis of current registered voters that showed 9 percent had Hispanic names. Growth in the number of Latino registrants was unavailable due to lack of earlier data.

"Not even political parties request this information," said Camden County Elections Superintendent Phyllis Pearl.

Voting-rights experts say trend lines help determine the success of efforts to enfranchise citizens who don't speak English.

"The county should have records of the number of Spanish-surnamed voters in each election," said John K. Tanner, a former U.S. Department of Justice elections official. "If a county doesn't track the number of minority-language voters in each precinct, its program is almost certain to violate federal law."

County officials say they know from election workers which polls serve high numbers of Spanish-speaking voters.

"People who want to vote will find a way to vote," Pearl said.

Most people don't feel intimidated by the voting process, Perez said. The goal, he said, is to ensure no one feels that way.

"An 80-year-old illiterate grandmother has the same right [to vote] as someone with a doctorate degree from Princeton," Perez said. "The important thing is to guarantee the right to the minorities."

Federal law requires only that jurisdictions have an "effective" way to gauge where bilingual poll workers are needed, said Rich Ambrosino, a county Board of Elections commissioner. Decisions in Camden County are based on data in individual municipalities.

Voting-rights experts recommend putting bilingual personnel in precincts where either 5 percent or a set number - 100 in many places - of registered voters have Spanish surnames.

Before the last election, the board tried to assign bilingual workers to municipalities where 5 percent or more of registered voters had Spanish names. A total of 67 was needed in Camden, Pennsauken, and Woodlynne, Ambrosino said. They got 64.

"It's already hard to find poll workers who want to work all day, and then to have to be bilingual?" he said. "We're doing a lot of recruiting."

The county has about 100 poll helpers fluent in Spanish and English, Ambrosino said. It would like more for towns such as Lindenwold and Winslow, with growing Latino communities.

The review of surnames performed for The Inquirer this month found that 6 percent of Lindenwold's registered voters had Spanish last names. Merchantville had 8 percent, Chesilhurst had close to 7 percent, and Collingswood and Somerdale had 5 percent. In some Cherry Hill and Collingswood precincts, the rate was more than 10 percent.   


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com.

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