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Seattle: Candidates chime in on how to get non-English speakers voting

Friday, January 30, 2009

  • By: Dr. Julie Pham
  • Organization: Northwest Asian Weekly

"People are being asked to vote for people they've never heard of for a position they've never heard of," said one of the candidatesof the upcoming election for the newly created election director position of King County. The first countywide vote-by-mail only election will close Feb. 3.

The candidates are current Elections Director Sherril Huff, former King County Councilman David Irons, former Superintendent of Elections Julie Kempf, Sen. Pam Roach, teacher Chris Clifford, and technology consultant Bill Anderson.

With this election, King County will join the state's other 38 counties in having an elected elections auditor.

Secretary of State Sam Reed said, "I was a strong advocate of making this position into an elected one.

Before, it was just a manager's role, and the director could not be an advocate. But as an elected position, it requires real leadership. It means that King County will be able to fight for resources and legislation to ensure good elections."

Most of the candidates agree with Reed. However, Huff does not.

Huff was appointed by King County Executive Ron Sims in 2007. "With a large jurisdiction, you need to be hiring those with expertise and experience," she said. "King County is a complex county. I was disappointed by this move, and it's really important that I'm retained."

Huff has been praised for bringing peace to the elections office in the wake of the 2004 election fiasco. However, as Reed and others have pointed out, this new election director position demands leadership and a vision, not just good management skills.

Non-partisan position

Unlike the other 38 counties, the postion of election director in King County will be a non-partisan role.

All candidates have pledged not to take donations from political parties except for Huff. She said, "I don't believe any stakeholder group should be denied a part in the election process."

Irons disagrees. He said, "Integrity and trust can't be compromised. We have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk."

Voter outreach

Voter outreach is an important issue for King County's voting population. According to the 2000 census, nearly 20 percent speak a language other than English.

In King County, ballots are printed in English and Mandarin.

In order to print ballots in other languages, an ethnic group must comprise 10,000 or 5 percent of the county's population. The Chinese were the only ones to meet the federally mandated threshold in 2000.

Candidates predict that Vietnamese, Korean, and Spanish-speaking populations will meet the threshold after the 2010 census.

Huff said she believes voter outreach is "critically important," but Huff's challengers dispute her level of commitment.

Roach said it was clear in debates that Huff has not gone out to the communities. "I was very shocked by this," she said. "I will go out to the communities to do outreach work, not just to reach those who are registered to vote, but to encourage citizens who haven't registered to vote to do so and to encourage those who haven't become citizens to become citizens."

"The current director of this job has done a miserable job of public outreach," Clifford wrote in an e-mail. "My skills as a teacher allow me to communicate with younger voters. My lifelong connections in various communities in King County allow me to reach out to voters and potential voters."

"Why should we only meet the [federal] minimum?" said Irons. "We need to have a world-class election system. We need to reach out to people in different languages." Along with the other candidates, Irons wants to see supplemental voting materials in different languages.

In an e-mail, Anderson wrote, "All ballots [should] be customized to their native language without regard to the percentage of population."

However, according to Kempf, printing ballots in other languages is very expensive.

Vote by mail or polls?

While this is the first all vote-by-mail election in the county, federal law mandates that there be three voting polls.

They will be in Renton, Bellevue, and Seattle. Some candidates think a vote-by-mail only system limits voter access, particularly for non-native speakers.

Irons, Clifford, and Kempf would push to bring back the voting polls. But according to King County's Minority Language Program Coordinator Hong Wagner, it is unclear whether bringing back the voting polls will increase access.
Wagner said, "In last year's elections, 72 to 80 percent of Chinese voted by mail."

Although Roach said she personally prefers the option of voting polls, she does not see their return. Roach said that with the mail-in vote, voters have time to examine their voting materials at home and seek interpretation help if needed.

Kempf pointed out that at voting polls, there are usually interpreters in relevant communities to help answer questions for non-English speakers. Based on her research, vote-by-mail is also more expensive. "In a dense, complex county like King County where each poll serves thousands of people, it does not make sense to do vote-by-mail only," said Kempf.

Julie Pham is the managing editor of Nguoi Viet Tay Bac/Northwest Vietnamese News, a semiweekly newspaper in Seattle. The Vietnamese version of this story appears in the Jan. 30 issue of Nguoi Viet Tay Bac.

Julie Pham can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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