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CA: U.S. Justice Dept. and Riverside County settle Spanish-speaking voters' lawsuit

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

RIVERSIDE - The U.S. Justice Department and Riverside County today settled a lawsuit that alleged the county failed to facilitate Spanish-speaking voters, which the county denied.

More than six months after the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division filed a suit against the county for alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the two sides agreed to a set of proposed remedies, including having federal monitors observe polling places in Riverside County.

"The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, and language barriers should never keep citizens from accessing that right," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.

"Today's agreement removes a procedural impediment to voting that hindered significant numbers of citizens from exercising that right. Riverside County should be congratulated for resolving the issue quickly and in a constructive manner."

Some 896,000 Riverside County residents -- 43 percent of the county's population -- are Latinos, of whom roughly 204,000 were identified by the U.S. Census Bureau as over 18 years old. Around 50,000 of those residents were

"limited English proficient," according to census officials.

The Justice Department alleged in its suit that the county violated Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act by failing to provide Advertisement
Embedded Ad "election-related information and assistance in Spanish to Spanish-speaking voters."

Supplying "minority-language" ballots and bilingual workers at polling stations is mandatory in jurisdictions where the minority group has a large presence, according to the Voting Rights Act.

Court documents did not point to any specific instances of Riverside County voters being hindered because of language barriers.

"The agreement notes that the county all along disputed allegations that we were not in compliance," said Riverside County Executive Office spokesman Ray Smith. "We provide assistance to Spanish-speaking voters and have had a program in place for years. We intend to continue to serve every voter in Riverside County."

The settlement requires the county to "develop, publicize and implement a remedial plan to ensure that Spanish-speaking voters with limited English proficiency are able to understand ... and participate in all phases of the

electoral process."

It also calls for the "appointment of federal observers" to monitor polling places throughout the county.

"The public is already allowed to observe polling activities on election day," Smith said. "Federal officials are just as welcome as any other member of the public."

The county reached the settlement "to conclude the litigation in a spirit of cooperation," Smith said.

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