DOJ: Pennsylvania County Discriminated Against Hispanics at Polls

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit Tuesday against a southeastern Pennsylvania county for refusing to provide Spanish-language assistance to its growing ranks of Hispanic voters.

The federal suit also accuses Berks County of violating voting laws by employing poll workers who express "overt hostility" toward Hispanics and actively discourage citizens who don't speak English well from casting ballots.

"It is a priority of this administration to ensure that all Americans are able to vote, free of hostility, harassment or intimidation," Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd said in a written statement.

The government's allegations stem from an undercover investigation during a May 2001 primary. Observers said poll workers asked Hispanics for identification documents they shouldn't have been required to produce and made frequent discriminatory and hostile remarks.

The suit follows months of negotiations between federal officials and the county over its reluctance to accommodate Spanish-speaking voters.

The county this month rejected a Justice Department proposal that would have required the county to hire bilingual poll workers and set up a Spanish-language voting information phone line, among other things.

Berks County Commissioner Tim Reiver said the idea of printing bilingual ballots and hiring translators has inflamed the county's English-speaking majority. "I'd say 80 percent of the people are opposed to it," he said.

Reiver said most feel the county should instead encourage its residents to learn English, which he said is critical to ending poverty. He said he was hopeful a settlement could be reached before the suit comes to trial.

About 13 percent of Berks County residents speak a language other than English at home, and 9.7 percent of its residents are Hispanic, according to the 2000 census. Federal law requires counties to provide language assistance if more than 5 percent of voting-age citizens speak a primary language other than English.