2 counties vow to ease Hispanics' poll access
Feds oversee Orange, Osceola election plans
By Susan Jacobson
Sentinel Staff Writer
Not wanting a repeat of Florida's 2000 election debacle, federal officials are meeting with supervisors of elections in Orange and Osceola counties to make sure they are welcoming Spanish-speaking voters and making it easy for them to go to the polls.
The stakes are high in what is predicted to be a close presidential race. In Osceola, more than 29 percent of the registered voters are Hispanic. In Orange, more than 15 percent are Hispanic.
On Tuesday, a U.S. Justice Department lawyer plans to meet with Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles to ensure that he is complying with the terms of a 2002 agreement designed to give Spanish speakers more access to the elections process.
The lawyer, Tim Mellett, met last week with Osceola Supervisor of Elections Donna Bryant, whose county reached a similar settlement over her handling of the 2000 election. Some Spanish speakers had complained that some Osceola poll workers were hostile toward them and that they were discouraged from voting.
"What we're doing here is very important," said Mellett, who would not comment on the specifics of the meetings. "Obviously, there were problems in 2000, and we want to make sure that isn't the case now."
Restoring confidence in the elections process is crucial to getting people to cast a ballot, said Fred Balsera, a spokesman for Mi Familia Vota, a nonpartisan group that registers Hispanics to vote. The group's name means "My Family Votes."
Because the Hispanic community is large in Florida and in the country as a whole, Hispanics could not only sway an election but also elevate their issues in government's eyes if they would just go to the polls, Balsera said. Half a million Florida Hispanics who are U.S. citizens are not registered, he said.
"They're skeptical . . . and they want to make sure their vote counts if they register," said Balsera, whose group is concentrating its Central Florida efforts in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.
Cowles and Bryant said they are abiding by the terms of their agreements with the federal government. They must produce voter materials in Spanish and English, hire Spanish-language coordinators to provide information to Hispanic voters and recruit bilingual poll workers. Both counties' elections offices run Spanish-language ads and send representatives to Hispanic-oriented community events.
"We provide the same service to everybody," said Cowles, who first took office in January 1997 after serving as chief deputy elections supervisor.
Bryant said her office also is on track for the upcoming presidential and local elections.
"He [Mellett] was very complimentary of our efforts, the outreach we've done," said Bryant, who has held her elected position for more than 23 years. "His words were, he feels like our heart is really into this."
Some local Hispanics, however, say Bryant isn't doing enough to reach out to the Spanish-speaking community.
James Auffant, who helped field complaints that led to the federal government cracking down on elections officials in Orange and Osceola counties, said Bryant does only what's required. Her office, he said, isn't as welcoming to Spanish speakers as is Cowles'.
"Donna's from the old school: 'I'll do what I have to do, and I won't do anything further,' " said Auffant, an Orlando attorney and president of the Hispanic American Voter League. "It's a matter of attitude."
Republican Mercedes León, a candidate for Osceola supervisor of elections, also is critical of Bryant's Hispanic outreach efforts. One of León's complaints is that the elections office's Spanish Web site is not as user-friendly as the English version.
"It makes it hard for them, and it discourages them from reading because it is too much work," said León, a bilingual Kissimmee lawyer who met with Mellett last week. Another Hispanic, retired police detective and Democrat Armando Ramirez, is running against Bryant in the Aug. 31 primary.
Bryant bristles at the criticism.
"We welcome the community leaders to come forward and discuss elections issues and procedures with us," she said.
One of Bryant's two Spanish-language liaisons, Diana Santana, said she goes to a variety of sites, including community centers in heavily Hispanic Buenaventura Lakes and Poinciana, and to Hispanic supermarkets.
She also works with the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration and the Hispanic Business Council of the Kissimmee/Osceola County Chamber of Commerce, which plans a Hispanic-oriented hobnob in Buenaventura Lakes in October. The chairman of the council said Bryant has been responsive to the group.
"I take it personally because it's my people that we're reaching," said Santana, the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a Dominican father. "I want them to have a voice."
In Orange, an early-voting site is planned for the southeast library branch on Semoran Boulevard near Hoffner Road in a neighborhood where many Hispanics live, said Maria Díaz, a community-outreach specialist in Cowles' office.
"That should motivate Hispanic voters," Díaz said. "There's going to be some place close to you to get it done."