By adding bilingual judges and signs for Election Day, Montgomery County did a better job of complying with new federal mandates to provide equal access for Spanish-speaking voters than it had during the primary, but more improvements are needed, according to a survey.
Montgomery was required to offer ballots in Spanish under a federal law intended to safeguard the voting rights of the growing number of U.S. citizens who speak limited English.
The county increased the number of bilingual election judges at polling stations -- to more than 90 polling stations in the general election, up from 14 in the primary -- but the judges still need to be trained on the federal law, according to law student Leslie Lobos, who helped direct the survey by the University of Maryland law school's Civil Rights Clinic.
Perhaps more troubling, Lobos said, observers overheard judges making insensitive remarks, as they had in the primary.
"There's still work to do," Lobos said. County officials have "definitely made improvement, but they're still not providing sufficient access."
On Nov. 5, volunteer law students visited eight precincts in predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Wheaton, Silver Spring and Gaithersburg. Lobos said that the observers found that the county had done a better job of posting Spanish signs next to English ones and that the bilingual judges were a boon.
In September, students from the Civil Rights Clinic had issued a report accusing the county of failing its 100,000-plus Latino residents by not complying with the federal requirements.
During the Sept. 10 primaries, law students observing seven polling places said they found "multiple violations" of the Voting Rights Act's language-access provisions. Lobos said Spanish assistance was not offered at any of those locations, some written materials were in English only and some poll officials made discriminatory remarks.
Lobos quoted one chief judge as saying: "These people are here. They're voting. Why don't they speak English?"
Such insensitive commentary was also overheard during the general election, she said.
According to Lobos, one of the chief judges at Gaithersburg Middle School told one poll watcher, "I don't think we need to provide this bilingual [expletive]."
After the initial report, Board of Elections officials said that they "vigorously" disagreed with the clinic's findings. The board learned only in July that Montgomery's Spanish-speaking population was large enough to require the county to comply with the Voting Rights Act provisions, according to election director Margaret A. Jurgensen. Officials quickly made new signs and bilingual instructional brochures.
More than 335 jurisdictions in 30 states had to follow the language-access segments of the law, which require voting boards to print ballots, signs, registration forms and informational brochures in an additional language if large percentages of their voting-age citizens do not speak English well.
Montgomery's inclusion this year reflected a massive surge in its Latino population in recent years. About 100,000 -- or 12 percent -- of the county's residents are Hispanic.
At Gaithersburg High School Nov. 5, there were voting instructions not just in Spanish, but also in Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese.
Faye Lopez, 51, brought her 72-year-old mother to the polls to use the Spanish-language ballot. "I think it's great for the Hispanic population," said Lopez, a retired Police Department employee. "They're afraid to come and vote because they don't understand."
Staff writer Phuong Ly contributed to this report.