Cities fail to embrace spirit of Voting Rights Act

NOTE: This column was based on a story I broke about the US Justice Department investigating Civil Rights violations.

Sunday Republican (Springfield)
August 20, 2006

Something must have gotten lost in the translation in at least four Massachusetts cities regarding the federal Voting Rights Act.

Springfield is now the fourth city to fall under suspicion by the U.S. Department of Justice in the past three years for allegations of violating citizens’ right to vote.

The other cities are Boston, Lawrence and Lowell.

Specifically, a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act mandates bilingual assistance in communities where voters with limited English comprise 15 percent of the voting population.

The four cities have large – and still growing – Latino populations. Lowell also has a strong Asian population. Both Asian and Hispanic ethnicities are the fastest-growing populations in the country.

Secretary of State William Galvin is the state’s chief voting rights enforcer, so watching four of his cities become federal cases must be unpleasant, especially in an election year. But whatever unpleasantness he may be going through, it has been far worse for voters, who said they were denied their constitutional right to vote.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department asked MassVOTE (Massachusetts Voter Education Network), a nonpartisan voting rights organization, to share information it had collected on Election Day 2004 at 232 polling sites in 11 cities, including Holyoke, Springfield, Lawrence and Lowell.

Among the findings from the exit poll surveys were that:

– Nearly one in 10 eligible voters could not vote on their first attempt; whether they tried again was not known.

– The training of poll workers is inadequate; many do not know the rules.
– Some voters with limited English were helped at some polls, but others were not.

In Springfield, where about 2,500 voters were surveyed in Wards 1, 2 and 4, some of the issues were a lack of translators, no information regarding their right to a provisional ballot and rudeness by a few poll workers.

In Ward 1A, located in the city’s mostly Spanish-speaking North End, for example, 50 of the 620 voters were told they were ineligible to vote when, in fact, they were able to prove they were eligible.

Jose Tosado, Springfield City Council president, said he’s confident the city will correct whatever deficiencies the Justice Department alleges.

“This should not be something that is insurmountable,” he said. “This is not rocket science.”

Tosado is a vocal proponent of the Voting Rights Act. He is also one of two city councilors who has consistently supported ward representation.

The nine members of Springfield’s council – seven of whom are Anglo – are elected as at-large representatives. Last year, city residents and organizations filed a federal lawsuit claiming the current system violates the voting rights of blacks and Hispanics. The city’s population of 150,000 is roughly half Anglo and 30 percent Latino; the remainder is black and Asian.

Tosado said the most recent lawsuit regarding lack of bilingual assistance “benefits our battle” for ward representation. It underscores that the city is diverse, and its neighborhoods have different issues.

Springfield Mayor Charles V. Ryan, who also supports ward representation, is a man of his word. So when he said he had never heard any complaints from voters who were denied the right to vote, you can take that to the bank.

But the city halls in Springfield and Holyoke oversee cities with large Latino populations. Yet the local governments are run mostly by Anglos who don’t speak Spanish. A bridge is missing.

John Bonifaz, founder of the National Voting Rights Institute, a candidate for secretary of state here and the first Latino ever to run for a statewide office, has been emphasizing that “the right to vote does not speak only one language. It is universal. No one should be denied the right to vote because of a language barrier.”

Last year, as a result of a Justice Department probe, Boston fell under a consent decree in which its elections will be closely monitored through 2008.

Also last year, but in Lawrence, thousands of voters were erroneously taken off the voting lists. By the time Lawrence City Hall realized its mistake and tried to correct it, it was too late, producing the lowest voter turnout in three decades.

“Massachusetts is the birthplace of our democracy,” Bonifaz said. “If any state is to be held up as a model for free and fair elections, it should be ours.”

This article originally appeared in The Republican