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Questions surround York County elections as Spanish speakers file lawsuit

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Plenty of questions remain around York County's plan to hand count three precincts in the 2022 general election — and county officials face a new challenge to their elections procedures.

On Wednesday, a civil rights organization sued the county, alleging that it did not do enough to accommodate Spanish-speaking voters.

“When I voted in York County, it’s all in English, and no one seemed to know how to help Spanish speakers," said York County resident Juan Oritz Torres, one of those whose experiences were cited in the lawsuit. "I deserve the chance to understand my vote just like any other eligible voter.”

County elections officials did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit but Greg Monskie, chief clerk to the Board of Commissioners, said the county has worked with the key litigants — Court Appointed Special Advocates and LatinoJustice — for several months to address the issues.

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"We look forward to defending any claims that might be made in the future," he said, "and have no ability to comment further about pending litigation."

Rayza Goldsmith, an attorney representing the civil rights organizations, said the lawsuit was a last resort in order to ensure the necessary translation services were available by Nov. 8.

"They came to us at a certain point and said 'We've been talking to the county about this, we're not getting anywhere,'" she said. "It was not our first choice to try and take this to court, but once we realized that they weren't interested in implementing some of the more reasonable and actionable steps we suggested they take before election day."

CASA state director Thais Carrero speaks before members react, after ICE ends their nearly 30 year contract with York County Prison, during a rally outside the prison in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, July 1, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Goldsmith said one of litigants' key requests is for the county to provide bilingual sample ballots for York County's voting precincts — particularly the ones with large Spanish-speaking populations. Currently, those bilingual sample ballots are only available for 18 of the 161 precincts, she said.

The lawsuit, citing the U.S. Voting Rights Act, also demands that the county Board of Elections provides Spanish-language ballots, election materials and people who can assist voters.

"At a moment when it’s key for us to encourage increased voter participation, making the process easier for voters should be a no-brainer," said Maria del Carmen Gutierez, CASA's senior director of membership.

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According to the lawsuit, CASA sent a detailed letter to the county in September that identified issues in the electoral process and outlined possible solutions. It alleged the county never responded.

"Our point here is to vindicate the rights of Puerto Rican voters who are equally entitled to the right to vote as any other American citizen," Goldsmith said.

As of Thursday afternoon, a status conference has been scheduled by Judge Jennifer P. Wilson for Friday at 12:30 p.m. As part of the order, CASA's counsel will immediately effect service of the complaint to the Board of Elections and their counsel.

Hand count: Meanwhile, county officials have kept largely mum on a plan announced Wednesday to hand count ballots from three random precincts in the upcoming Nov. 8 election after meeting with a group that has spread misinformation about the 2020 election. Requests for additional details went unanswered Thursday.

President of the York County Board of Elections Julie Wheeler poses with scanned mail-in ballots stored in a room at the York County Administration Center Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. The room is equipped with a fire suppression system. Bill Kalina photo

On Wednesday, Wheeler said the plan — made after a county meeting with Audit the Vote PA — would be to count the ballots from one city, one borough and one township precinct.

“It’s really as a courtesy; it doesn’t change anything,” she said Wednesday.

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Democratic Party of York chair Chad Baker disagrees.

“Yet again, Commissioner Wheeler has shown her willingness to kowtow to partisan rhetoric and false narratives," Baker said Thursday. "The commissioners have stated on more than one occasion that York County elections are fair and safe. [Republican state Rep.] Mike Jones at the NAACP forum stated he believed elections are fair and safe in York County. To now implement this process is needless."

Questions around the hand counting process include who will conduct the hand counting, how the three random precincts will be chosen, if the picking of the precincts will be public, if the public will be informed which three precincts are chosen, why three precincts and the specific involvement Audit the Vote PA may have in the process.

Audit the Vote is one of several groups that rose out of the aftermath of the 2020 election. They purport to fight for election integrity, but the group has organized events featuring current Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Doug Mastriano.

In an email, Audit the Vote founder Toni Shuppe refused to comment, saying that the organization does not speak with "biased media organizations."

Mastriano publicly demanded election audits in several counties last year, including York.

Hand counts have been pushed by groups who claim without evidence that there was and is widespread fraud in the country's elections. In August, a federal judge ruled against an attempt to require hand counting in Arizona's upcoming election.

An attempted voter referendum on the county's use of Dominion electronic voting machines — an endeavor that was supported by Audit the Vote PA — did not receive enough signatures and was also rejected by the Board of Elections.

This article has been updated to reflect the scheduling of a status conference between the parties of the CASA lawsuit and Judge Jennifer P. Wilson.

 — Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.