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    Orange County polls criticized

    The county is the third in Florida to be notified of problems involving the federal Voting Rights Act.

    By THOMAS C. TOBIN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 24, 2002


    Orange County election officials failed to accommodate scores of Spanish-speaking voters at the polls during the 2000 general election, a U.S. Justice Department lawyer alleges in a letter released Thursday.

    The county failed to provide bilingual pollworkers in 70 precincts where large numbers of Hispanic residents live, the letter said, including 10 precincts where Hispanics made up 20 percent or more of registered voters.

    The letter by Assistant Attorney General Ralph F. Boyd Jr. also lists other problems, including a failure of the Orange County elections office to communicate with Spanish-speaking voters in its brochures and on its Web site.

    Boyd threatened to sue the county but said he would hold off so a plan could be worked out to correct the problems, which allegedly violate the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    About 19 percent of Orange County's 900,000 residents are Hispanic -- slightly more than the county's black population, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

    Boyd's letter solves a mystery of sorts among the community of officials who run elections across Florida's 67 counties. He told a U.S. Senate committee Tuesday he was threatening to sue three Florida counties over violations in 2000 election. Officials in Osceola and Miami-Dade counties quickly revealed they were among the three, also because of problems providing multilingual assistance to voters.

    But who was the third county?

    Not even Orange County officials knew, said County Attorney Tom Wilkes. He said the letter, dated May 13, was not discovered until Thursday. He explained that Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles, to whom the letter was addressed, has been out of town for a week.

    Cowles could not be reached Thursday for comment, but Wilkes said the supervisor has been attentive to Hispanic voters in the past and will likely work with the Justice Department to improve in that area. "Orange County's not going to fight that," Wilkes said of Boyd's threatened lawsuit. "I don't think there's any kind of dispute."

    Under the Voting Rights Act, Orange is one of nine Florida counties that must provide multilingual ballots and other written materials to voters, as well as translation help at the polls.

    Boyd's letter alleged that problems occurred even in Orange County polling places where Spanish-speaking workers were available. The letter said, "virtually all bilingual workers conducted the voting process in English. . . . Spanish-speaking voters struggled to understand the voting process in English and yet no assistance in Spanish was provided."

    Boyd also criticized Orange poll workers for not allowing poll watchers from political parties to assist Spanish-speaking voters with translation, even though the voters asked them for help. He said the law allows voters to seek help at the polls from the person of their choice.

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