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Election Materials in Spanish Approved in 2024 Skagit Budget

by Christie Stewart Stein

When Skagit County Commissioners approved the 2024 budget without modifications on December 11, 2023, it included $150,000 to provide election materials in Spanish for Spanish-speaking voters. It was also the culmination of several years of advocacy by community members.

Why?

According to 2021 Census data, 9% of eligible voters in Skagit County speak Spanish. This exceeds the threshold defined in the US Voting Rights Act which requires states or counties to provide election materials in another language if at least 5% of the voting population speaks that language. Local resident, Faviola Lopez speaks to this need.

“ Our community members, especially our elders, should not have to be dependent on family members or others  in order to understand their voting choices. They want to be able to learn about candidates and ballot measures in their own language, and make their choices independently.”

English speakers might ask, don’t people have to pass an English proficiency test to become a citizen? This is how English-speaking local resident Brenda Cunningham responds to that question.

“I think even I sometimes struggle with the English used in the voter pamphlet. 

Someone who understands English well enough to pass the citizen exam gets full rights, even if they have not yet mastered the language well enough to understand the convoluted phrases of the initiatives submitted for the ballot. 

And please don’t forget that we are a country with many immigrants and no official language.”

The Challenge

It was a campaign promise of Skagit County Auditor Sandy Perkins, but proved much more difficult to achieve than she might have anticipated. It wasn’t until her second term in office that she was able to deliver on that promise.

Perkins came into office in 2019. She inherited an Elections Office that was understaffed, underfunded, lacking needed equipment to process ballots efficiently, and without adequate space. Local news stories reported in the days after the Nov. 6, 2018 general election, that Skagit County stood out as the slowest in the state to count ballots. 

David Cunningham, then Elections Supervisor for the County, is quoted saying,

“If the County wants to avoid a slow count in the 2020 presidential election, it needs to allocate more resources for staff, equipment and space for the Elections Department.” 

County Commissioners turned a deaf ear at that time to the pleas, either unable or unwilling to recognize the increased demands on the Elections Office as voter turnout soared in the 2018 elections and was projected to rise even higher in 2020.

In 2019, after Perkins took office, the Commissioners did approve her request for additional staff and equipment, but Spanish language materials for voters went on the back burner. Indeed, in comments for this article, Perkins said,

”The county budget determined by the Commissioners, has been the roadblock for the last 4 years.”

Community Advocates Step Up

Then, a group of citizen advocates stepped up to see how they could help make this solution to an important need in the community become a reality. They started with research and began ongoing conversations with Perkins. They found that that 6 other counties in Washington were already providing election materials to voters in Spanish. Perkins followed up with those counties to learn about their experience, finding out what was working in other counties.

She also looked at some of the pitfalls in order to avoid those problems here. For instance, other counties had discovered that while it is relatively easy to translate the Voters Pamphlet, elections webpage, and other materials into Spanish, providing multiple languages on the actual ballot is expensive and can make ballots unwieldy. This is especially true if there are multiple language groups in a community. As community advocates helped gather data and share experiences from the community, conversations with Perkins moved forward.

Support from County Commissioners Lags Behind

In 2023 Perkins first included $75,000 in her budget request to County Commissioners for translating election materials into Spanish. When asked about this by a local leader, one Commissioner responded,

“ We have more important things to spend that money on.”

All three County Commissioners voted against the expenditure citing what they believed was insufficient detail about how the money would be spent.

Meanwhile, the working relationship between advocates and the Auditor’s Office was gaining momentum. Their research showed that $150,000 was a more realistic reflection of the budget need for this important service. One of the group, local resident Marco Morales, put Perkins in touch with North Sound Accountable Community Health.

Says Perkins,

“North Sound ACH is a local non-profit and is like-minded in their desire to engage with our county’s Spanish speaking population. After several months of discussion with me, NS ACH made the offer to fund the first year of expenses (up to $150,000) for our Spanish translation efforts.”

The grant was secured to cover the cost of the first year. Afterward, the budget item was finally approved by County Commissioners in the 2024 budget.

Perkins,

“ We couldn’t have done this without North Sound ACH’s generosity and support.  I hope to continue our collaboration as we roll out our first year of translation materials and outreach. ”

Voters Pamphlet translation will continue into the future. The pamphlet contains instructions on properly filling out the ballots and signing the envelope. The ballots themselves will remain in English.

Wider Impact

Washington House member, Rep. Clyde Shavers of the 10th Legislative District, was sufficiently inspired by the efforts in Skagit that he introduced a bill with a state-assisted requirement for counties within the mandatory threshold throughout Washington to translate election materials. In addition, a grant program would be established by the Secretary of State’s Office to assist counties that voluntarily wish to provide language translated voting materials to voters.  HB 2023 Elections Language Access, is now working its way through the legislative process with bipartisan support.

The approved Skagit 2024 budget includes other upgrades to the Elections Office. Says Perkins, 

“We will be hiring an Election Outreach Coordinator, a bilingual person who can help translate election materials, be on-site to assist our Spanish speaking community, and provide outreach to our Hispanic community. ”

”We will also be moving our election department in the next couple of months, to a larger, more secure location where we can accommodate more election observers. The location has not been announced yet as we are making security enhancements now.”

Elections are central to the functioning of our Democracy. A well-staffed, well-equipped, secure Elections Office that is responsive to the needs of local voters is essential to safeguard the counting of every vote. In this case, it took engaged community members working with the County Auditor, and cooperation from County Commissioners to make sure the community and the Elections staff have what they need to serve Skagit’s whole community.

Christie Stewart Stein has farmed just west of Mount Vernon for over 25 years. Her volunteer engagement in the community has included supporting homeless women, farmworkers and Spanish-speaking immigrants, and aspiring young farmers.

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