Help sought on voter outreach
James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer
Created: 08/08/2010 09:43:48 PM PDT

Local election officials could expose San Bernardino County to a federal investigation if they don’t make a more concerted effort to boost the number of voters in some parts of the county, civil rights experts say.

Local Latino leaders say they have asked the county registrar of voters to more actively encourage voting in parts of the county where few people cast ballots – areas that, leaders say, are also largely Latino. But Registrar Kari Verjil said the federal Department of Justice has told her the county is doing enough. She said it’s her office’s role to reach out to all eligible voters, not to specific groups.

Critics say that’s not enough.

“They used the same argument in black-belt Alabama immediately after the Voting Rights Act (of 1965) passed,” said J. Morgan Kousser, a social science and history professor at the California Institute of Technology, who has testified as an expert witness in numerous voting rights cases. “Is this what people marched in Selma for?”

Gil Navarro, a county school board trustee and a member of the advisory committee that has asked Verjil to do more voter outreach, said he and others plan to file a complaint with the Department of Justice.

“The committee attempted to work within the system with the registrar of voters for the last five years,” he said. “I think five years is long enough to find out they don’t want to adhere to the Voting Rights Act. We have no alternative, no choice, but to file a complaint with the Department of Justice and make the federal government comply with the law.”

The Department of Justice on Friday could not provide specific information about whether San Bernardino County is meeting the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.

Since forming a bilingual advisory committee in 2005, Verjil said her office has made some significant strides, including boosting the number of bilingual poll workers at county polling places. But more than making it easier to vote and register to vote, committee members have asked Verjil to actively reach out to voters and encourage them go to the polls.

They want Verjil to focus on areas with low voter turnout – areas that leaders say are likely poorer and have more black and Latino residents.

“I feel comfortable saying our committee’s concern is that Latinos are not participating in the voting process,” Navarro said. “But we don’t want to ignore African-Americans.”

Assistant County Counsel Daniel Haueter, who advises Verjil’s office, acknowledged that areas in San Bernardino County with more poor and Latino residents have lower voter-turnout rates than do more affluent areas.

But whether that outreach is targeted toward specific voting precincts or toward Latinos specifically, Verjil said she does not plan to do any such outreach.

“I don’t believe that is an appropriate role for the registrar,” she said.

Gary Orfield, a professor of law and political science at UCLA, called that argument “absurd.”

“They have the right and the responsibility to register people who are not registered,” he said.

And Kousser said federal law requires the kind of outreach requested by committee members.

“Outreach efforts to areas that currently don’t vote in such high proportions are precisely what the Voting Rights Act would dictate,” he said.

Verjil said she understands the Voting Rights Act to mean she must “provide the same type of outreach services to all communities.”

But Kousser said that’s what election officials in the South tried to do to get around the Voting Rights Act when it passed. At that time, Kousser said the federal government sent in agents to register voters in underrepresented areas.

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