City dumps bilingual ballots

WORCESTER– The Election Commission last night voted to reverse its policy of using bilingual ballots in municipal elections.

The 3-2 vote came after only one election’s experience — in last November’s municipal election — of using ballots that were printed in both Spanish and English.

Lena Barry and Beverly Chester switched their votes last night to join Chairman Duane Sargisson, who had been the only election commissioner to vote Aug. 20 against using bilingual ballots.

Voting in the minority last night to continue using bilingual ballots in the 2003 municipal election were Thomas P. Begley and Nicholas Charalambides. Of 20 people who attended the meeting, 16 spoke in favor of retaining the bilingual ballot and three were critical of it.

Both Samuel Rosario, an advisory board member of the Latino Voter Registration and Education Project, a backer of the bilingual ballot, and Mr. Sargisson spoke against the Election Commission even voting on the matter. Both noted that only two of the five commission members are eligible to be reappointed when all five of their terms expire March 31.

The two members who voted to continue using bilingual ballots are the two eligible to be reappointed by City Manager Thomas R. Hoover. However, it was Mr. Begley who in September said his motion of the previous month had been misinterpreted to mean that the vote on bilingual ballots was intended to be the Election Commission’s permanent policy.

Rather, he said in August, it was only meant to be for last fall’s election. But then, Mr. Begley said, his motion of last night was meant to be for the municipal election of 2003 ?and thereafter.?

Mr. Begley said he voted for bilingual ballots because Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens even before they come here, but he has misgivings about his own vote because of the cost that will be necessary once other non-English speakers demand ballots in their language.

He acknowledged what Mr. Sargisson asserted: that the members of the Election Commission to be appointed for terms beginning in April can change or keep the policy made last night.

After the vote, Craig A. J. Manseau, the commission’s executive director, said he expects the new commissioners to revisit the policy.

The Election Commission determines the ballots of the municipal elections held in odd-numbered years, but not for state and federal elections held in the even-numbered years.

Mr. Rosario said he was disappointed the Election Commission did not heed the majority of those attending last night’s meeting, but is used to having city officials take away what looks like a victory. He said he is turning his efforts to having the city manager appoint election commissioners who reflect the city’s diversity.

Mr. Rosario said he does not expect to bring the subject of bilingual ballots back to the Election Commission until next year.

Three elected officials, City Councilors Philip P. Palmieri and Stephen T. Patton and School Committee member Joseph O’Brien, spoke in favor of keeping the bilingual ballot. But state Sen. Guy W. Glodis, an outspoken opponent of the state’s system of bilingual education, spoke powerfully against the bilingual ballot.

The Worcester Democrat said that language can unify people or, in this case divide them. ?I think it is sending out the wrong message,? he said, ?that we are going to cater to one language.?

He said it leaves out others that he represents, and he listed Polish, Cambodians and other Asians, Brazilians and others. He said it could even harm the turnout for state elections, which have no bilingual ballots.

Mr. Glodis said there is no proof that bilingual ballots increase voter turnout and that last fall’s election had the lowest turnout since 1949. He said, and Mrs. Barry and Mr. Begley confirmed, that there were complaints among some people about the bilingual ballots.

Incensed by Mr. Glodis’ comments, Kevin Ksen of 5 Shawmut St. called them ?a bunch of Jim Crow? ideas.

There were a host of statistics used by people asserting either that electoral participation was up or down with the use of the bilingual ballots. Mr. Manseau said citywide turnout was down in 2001 from 29 percent to 27 percent compared to the November election. But there was an even greater drop in turnout in the entire precincts that include the city’s heaviest minority populations, Great Brook Valley’s (6 percent drop) and Plumley Village (3 percent drop).

But Allison Kennedy of Neighbor to Neighbor, a low-income voter education group, said a street-by-street analysis of voter turnout in Great Brook Valley, Plumley Village and Lake Shore apartments — three public housing projects — from 1997 to 2001 showed a 166 percent increase.

Jose Garcia, saying that he represents the board of directors of Centro Las Americas, said 10 percent of the population is a reasonable threshold to require ballots in the language of a non-English speaking population. He said 48 percent of the Worcester school population is Hispanic and ?that’s the future of the city.?

He called not having bilingual ballots denial of Spanish-speaking people’s right to vote. But Mr. Sargisson said that is not true because voters are entitled to have translators with them at the polls.

Ms. Barry said she voted last time ?against my better judgment? because ?we’re telling people they do not have to learn English.?

Mary Melikian, of 80 Salisbury St., said her parents learned English and ?I think everyone should learn the language? and understand the issues. But another woman said ?the world is changing. Times are changing and I think Worcester needs to change.?

Shirley Wright, the city’s human rights director, said she was speaking personally, and said bilingual ballots are a matter of human rights. She said the city spent a great deal of money to make City Hall accessible to the handicapped and it should be prepared to make the election process accessible to non-English speakers.

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