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Voting Ballots in Los Angeles Available in 7 Languages - 2002-10-16

U.S. voters will go to the polls November 5. Some voters whose second language is English will cast their ballots in Spanish, Chinese, or other languages. In Los Angeles ballots are available in seven languages, and more may soon be added.

There are four million registered voters in Los Angeles County, and county officials administer the elections. For voters who ask, election materials - known as sample ballots - are available in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese. They contain translated statements by candidates and descriptions of ballot issues, such as questions of whether to fund new libraries or schools.

Jennifer Collins-Foley, assistant registrar of voters, says Los Angeles has ballots in more languages than any place else in the country. Under congressional legislation, places where more than five percent of the voting-age population, or more than 10,000 people, do not speak English well, officials must provide election materials in their language. Ms. Collins-Foley says groups with smaller numbers also receive assistance. "We expected to have Khmer or the Cambodian language, but the census didn't come out with those kinds of numbers," she said. "And we're still going to provide limited services to Cambodian limited-proficiency voters in terms of bilingual poll workers at targeted polling places in areas of Long Beach. The same thing with Russian. It didn't make the cut censuswise, but we're still attempting to provide Russian bilingual poll workers at targeted polling places in West Hollywood and some other areas."

Armenian poll workers are available in Glendale, a community north of Los Angeles with a large Armenian immigrant community. "Obviously, if you're the only [foreign] language speaker in your neighborhood, that's not going to happen," said Jennifer Collins-Foley. "But for different languages, even 10 Vietnamese speakers in one precinct will get you a bilingual poll worker at your poll."

Most Los Angeles voters use punchcard ballots. They are being phased out over the next four years because of problems in Florida in the last presidential election. But Los Angeles voters with special language needs already have access to computerized voting machines with foreign language ballots. Even the names of the candidates are rendered in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters.

Most U.S. citizens speak English. In fact, English skills are needed to complete the process of becoming a naturalized citizen. But Julia Keh, an immigrant from Taiwan who coordinates programs for voters with special needs, says election terminology can be confusing. "So even for English speaking voters, they have a hard time to make a decision," she said. "Then think about the people who are first time voters, new citizens. When they read about the sample ballot information, the say 'What is this?' "

Local officials work with outside companies, which provide the translations. The results are checked by in house staff or by members of ethnic voting associations.

The problem, says Ms. Collins-Foley: the process is the expensive. Los Angeles County spends $2.2 million for translated materials in every major election. "Because we have the cost of translation, and then we have the incredibly expensive cost of printing, and then mailing," she said.

The official says, however, the program is rewarding. "It's very task-intensive," she added. "It's expensive. And yet when you speak to a new citizen who for the first time, is able to really understand how they're casting their ballot, it's just wonderful."

As counties across the United States expand their language programs under a federal mandate, Ms. Collins-Foley and other election officials are hoping the federal government will help pay the cost.