By Lisa Soule
Killeen Daily Herald
A mandate to hire at least one Spanish-speaking clerk in each Bell County voting precinct has upset some election judges.
"I'm not happy about this at all," said 401 Precinct election judge Lloyd Leppo. "This is a slap in the face to my Korean voters and German voters. What are we doing here?"
Local election judges may have to shuffle their staffs in order to meet a federal mandate to provide a Spanish-speaking clerk in all precincts.
Leppo said he will be required to replace one of his trained and experienced clerks who do not speak Spanish with someone who does.
Bell County Clerk Vada Sutton said federal law requires Spanish speakers when Hispanic surnames top 5 percent of a given population.
"This is not new," Sutton said. Letters recently went out to election judges detailing their responsibilities for the upcoming elections. Sutton said the only thing different this year is her use of the word "mandatory" with regard to Spanish speakers.
Sutton said both she and County Judge Jon Burrows were recently informed by the secretary of state that the county's Hispanic population is over 5 percent.
County political party chairs say they plan to meet with Sutton next week to review the requirement.
Bell County Republican Party Chair Nancy Boston said she hasn't yet had an opportunity to review all the applicable mandates, but hopes a meeting may iron out exactly how many Spanish speakers are needed and in which precincts.
Boston said several election judges have called her about the issue.
"I hope to come to some agreement in Bell County about the law and what we're required to do," Boston said. "We will certainly do what we can to abide by the law."
Democratic Party Chair Bobby Grant said he received one call about the matter and also plans to attend the meeting to get some clarity on the issue.
"You have to understand that everybody, including the Justice Department and the secretary of state's office is antsy because of what happened in the last presidential election," Sutton said. "I've tried all my life to ensure good, honest, legal elections. I don't want to have the federal and state government breathing down our throats all the time."
Latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau count people of Hispanic origin as the largest race or ethnic minority in the country. Texas and California rank behind New Mexico as states with the highest Hispanic populations.
Pete Salazar, election judge for Precinct 405, said he often finds himself relying on his Spanish-speaking abilities to explain procedures to voters. Salazar said the government seems to want clarity at the polls.
"I think it's very important," Salazar said, noting that many people, even those from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, don't speak very good English.
But Salazar sees other needs as well.
"We not only need Spanish speakers but Korean and Tagalog (a Filipino language) too," he said.
Singling out the Spanish language is what really bothers Leppo, saying one voting group is receiving special treatment.
"We're not catering to anybody," Sutton said. "I'm following the law. So far, they have not told me to provide Korean ballots."
Sutton did note that Harris County's high Vietnamese population has prompted ballots in that language.
"I think if you vote, you need to speak English," said Marjorie Carroll, Precinct 410 election Judge. "That is my own thing. I have always thought that anyone living in the U.S. ought to speak English, and not just in Texas."
Contact Lisa Soule at firstname.lastname@example.org