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Under Terms Of Consent Decree, County Must Hire Bilingual Elections Coordinator

Friday, April 10, 2009

Under terms of a consent decree stemming from a Justice Department voting rights suit, Fort Bend County must hire a bilingual "Spanish-language Election Program Coordinator" to oversee aspects of county-run elections.

Also, for at least the life of the decree - the end of 2012 - federal observers will be present at county-run elections.

The consent decree, made public in U.S. district court on Thursday, was signed by County Judge Bob Hebert and County Attorney Roy Cordes Jr. It represents the culmination of a long-running voting rights dispute between the DOJ's civil rights division and Fort Bend County election officials.

Crafted to settle a DOJ complaint that had been simmering since 2004 but was only officially filed in court Thursday, the consent decree largely includes terms for complying with findings that the county denied equal voting rights to Hispanic citizens with limited English language skills.

Overseeing that effort will be a new Spanish-language election program coordinator, to whom Fort Bend County officials will provide "support sufficient to meet the goals of the program."

"The coordinator shall be able to understand, speak, write and read fluently both Spanish and English," the consent decree states. "The coordinator's responsibilities shall include coordination of the translation of ballots and other election information; development and oversight of Spanish publicity programs, including selection of appropriate Spanish-language media for notices and announcements; training, recruitment and assessment of Spanish-language proficiency of bilingual poll officials and interpreters…"

The coordinator also will preside over an advisory group to be established by county officials, "open to any interested person or organization."

The advisory group will meet regularly for six months "prior to the first election conducted by the county under the decree, and at least once during the two months after the election," the consent decree states.

The advisory group may make suggestions for actions to be taken by the county election administrator. If the administrator decides not to implement any of those actions, he'll have to provide them with a written statement as to why not, the decree says.

Also, for the life of the decree, federal observers will be present "to monitor compliance with and ensure effectiveness of this decree, and to protect the Fourteenth Amendment rights of the citizens of Fort Bend County," the decree states.

The decree is in effect until Dec. 31, 2012.

"Defendant shall recogize the authority of federal observers to observe all aspects of voting conducted in the polls on election day, including the authority to view county personnel providing assistance to voters during voting, except where the voter objects."

Also under terms of the agreement, county officials must provide regular reports about any changes to election procedures, and about all complaints the county receives over language or voter assistance issues, along with "the name of the voters who cast a ballot at each early voting location."

See this related story for details of allegations made by Justice officials against Fort Bend County - which resulted in the consent decree.

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