The US Department of Justice is conducting an investigation into voting problems in the city of Lowell, as advocates called for an increase in voting assistance to growing immigrant populations in the Bay State.
The Lowell investigation, confirmed by a Justice Department spokesman this past week, is the fourth recent probe into alleged voting rights violations in Massachusetts city elections. Other cities targeted by the Justice Department are Springfield, Lawrence, and Boston, which entered into a consent decree to print ballots in multiple languages, including Vietnamese, Chinese, and Spanish.
In Lowell, an advocacy group has reported that Cambodian-American voters faced difficulties at the polls last fall and has recommended that the city print more election materials in Khmer, a language spoken by Cambodians, who constitute up to a quarter of city residents.
The federal Voting Rights Act requires election materials to be printed in another language when more than 10,000 voting-age citizens or 5 percent of all voting-age citizens speak that language and have difficulty speaking English. But state election officials say that only Spanish-speaking citizens reach that threshold in Massachusetts cities. Six communities are required to print ballots in Spanish -- Boston, Chelsea, Holyoke, Lawrence, Southbridge, and Springfield.
''We have complied with the federal law with regard to printing in English and Spanish," said Secretary of State William F. Galvin. ''The new effort seems to be getting municipalities to print in languages other than English and Spanish even though it's not triggered by the census."
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division launched a major initiative to ensure that communities are complying with the Voting Rights Act last year. Last fall, the Justice Department announced it would send federal observers to monitor the November elections in Boston, Lowell, and 14 other communities across the country.
Eric W. Holland, a Justice spokesman, confirmed that the Voting Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division is conducting an investigation in Lowell, but he refused to provide additional details on the probe.
The Justice Department is also investigating complaints in Springfield, where observers from a nonprofit voting rights group last November documented a lack of translators, a lack of information regarding their right to provisional ballots, and rudeness by poll workers. Holland, the spokesman, confirmed the Springfield investigation, which was first reported by the Springfield Republican.
In Lawrence, the department is investigating problems after the city sent letters to some 15,000 voters shortly before Election Day advising them they were no longer considered active voters.
Last summer, the Justice Department sued the city of Boston for violating provisions of the Voting Rights Act requiring the Election Department to provide ballots and poll assistance in Spanish and for allegedly coercing limited English speakers to vote certain ways. As part of a settlement, the city also agreed to print ballots in Chinese and Vietnamese in precincts with high concentrations of those voters.
In Lowell, the New York-based Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund surveyed the city's polling places in the November election and reported difficulties that Cambodian-American voters were facing. The group also monitored elections in 2002, 2004, and 2005, and reported several problems with language assistance for Cambodian-American voters.
In a letter he sent to the election commissioners in January, staff attorney Glenn D. Magpantay detailed the results of the group's survey of 116 Asian-American voters at three poll sites. Five voters said they were directed to the wrong polling places, and one had to cast a provisional ballot because his name was listed incorrectly in the voter roll.
City officials say they are working with the group and plan a face-to-face meeting -- to which Justice officials have been invited -- on Friday. ''These are their issues that we want to address, and we're willing to sit down and work with them so we can reach a mutual understanding and go forward," said Brian W. Leahey, assistant city solicitor.
But in a letter responding to the group's complaints in January, the chairman of the Lowell Election Commission derided Magpantay for conducting a voter survey that he said gave no opportunity for voters to offer positive feedback. In a sharply worded letter, the chairman, Thomas A. Wirtanen, also wrote that the group ignored one of the main reasons that voters had trouble finding polling places on Election Day: erroneous information published in the local newspaper.
''We are very disappointed that, owing to your abjectly flawed approach to exit polling, you have failed to approximate or ascertain the truth concerning this election," Wirtanen wrote in January.
Galvin, whose office oversees elections, characterized the issues raised by the group as ''fairly minor" and noted the involvement of Cambodian-Americans in the political process in Lowell. In 1999, Massachusetts' first Cambodian-American city councilor was elected in Lowell, and the community fielded three unsuccessful candidates for school committee last fall.
''In Lowell, in particular, Asian-Americans have been successful. It's clear they've been fairly well-treated," said Galvin. ''I must tell you, the Lowell administration has been more sensitive than I think some other communities have."
John Bonifaz, a voting rights advocate who is running against Galvin this year, criticized his opponent for not being aware of the investigations and for not taking steps of his own to correct alleged problems.
''It remains bewildering to me how the secretary of state's office seems unaware of these investigations," said Bonifaz. ''I don't think we should have to rely upon the Bush Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act in Massachusetts. I think we should have a secretary of state who is being proactive and ensuring that the Voting Rights Act is being enforced around Massachusetts."
T. J. McCarthy, Lowell's assistant city manager, said the city has provided interpreters at the polls, but that the volunteers promised by nonprofit groups were not reliable on election day; the city is now reaching out to students for help as interpreters.
''Obviously, if they need more interpreters at the polling places, that's a real issue, and we'll address it however we can," said McCarthy. But he questioned whether the city would need to have translators available at all polling places and whether the group would be satisfied with fewer. ''If you have 30 polling places, do you need all 30 covered with interpreters? I don't know," McCarthy said.
Magpantay said he is hopeful that his group and the city can come to a compromise. He said the city still has not addressed problems raised in the 2004 elections when, his group alleges, voters whose names were not on the rolls were not told that they could vote by provisional ballots, as required under a 2002 federal law.
''We look forward to the city translating the ballot in Khmer. And we're looking forward to discussing problems with the 2004 elections," Magpantay said.
Cities and towns conduct an annual census of voters, which voting rights advocates say could be used to identify population shifts and prepare to serve growing populations of limited-English speakers, said Juan Martinez, executive director of MassVOTE.
''In an ideal scenario, you want to see your cities and towns be proactive in serving their voters, not waiting for a lawsuit to start providing materials in Chinese and Vietnamese -- and with that, to provide the kind of funding that our election departments need," Martinez said.
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.