Mail-In Ballots Must Be Bilingual, New Jersey Court Says

A roll of stickers awaiting distribution to early voters sits on a table in May 2018 at the Pulaski County Courthouse Annex check-in station in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel)

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – Pointing to the unambiguous intent of New Jersey laws to promote voting, rather than restrict it, an appeals court ruled Monday that mail-in ballots must be printed in English and Spanish.

Edward Correa, a Dover resident who ran in 2018 as a Democrat for a Morris County committee seat, brought the suit just days before voters were set to vote in the June primaries.

Though Correa had received a sample ballot in English and Spanish, the actual ballot was mailed in English only.

Roughly 70 percent of residents in Dover are Hispanic or Latino, and at least 10 percent of registered voters in Dover speak Spanish as their primary language. 

Correa sought emergency relief, but election officials argued that changing ballots so quickly would have led to “chaos.”

Morris County Superior Court Judge Stuart Minkowitz ultimately ruled to keep the ballots English-only, but the Appellate Division issued a prospective reversal Monday.

“Considering the statutory scheme as a whole, it is clear that the Legislature has expressed a strong policy interest in protecting Spanish-speaking voters from being disenfranchised,” the unsigned 14-page opinion states.

While county officials cited language in state laws specifying only the need for sample ballots be bilingual, the appeals court said lawmakers mostly likely intended more thorough access.

“As a practical matter, it makes no sense to provide bilingual sample ballots because voters are not fluent in English, but to expect those same voters to navigate an official balloting process that is English-only,” the ruling states.

The court also noted that Spanish mail-in ballots often are received only a few days before the election, whereas English-only mail-in ballots are sent out weeks before.

Scott Salmon, an attorney for Correa with the firm Jardim, Meisner & Susser, lauded the decision. “This is an important step towards ensuring all voters are able to cast a vote for the candidates of their choice,” Salmon said. “We have a long way to go before we reach that goal, but this is a bit day for all Spanish-speaking voters in New Jersey.”

In an interview Monday, however, Morris County Deputy Clerk John Wojtazek accused Correa of gamesmanship.

“We were never opposed to printing bilingual ballots,” Wojtazek said. “The problem with this request was that we were blindsided and taken to court the weekend before the election.”

Wojtazek noted that Correa had mailed in multiple ballots over the years without ever before voicing concerns about the process until the county clerk was up for re-election. “In my personal opinion, obviously it was a political stunt,” the deputy clerk said.

Morris officials had argued that bilingual ballots would be required only if more than 5 percent of the town’s citizens of voting age had limited English proficiency. Such a determination could be made as early as 2020.

County attorney John Carbone told the New Jersey Globe last year: “That’s what the law is. If they don’t like the law, they can go to the Democratic governor, the Democratic assembly, and the Democratic senate and get it changed for the Democrats and the Republicans. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what the law is.”

Correa had been joined in the suit by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

In an amicus brief to the appellate division, the ACLU wrote that the failure to make mail-in ballots a facsimile of the samples “undermines the public policy objectives of our election laws and will inevitably lead to voter confusion and disenfranchisement.”

Monday’s decision is not retroactive, meaning it will have no impact on the 2018 election.

It specifies that in New Jersey counties with at least 10 percent registered voters speaking primarily Spanish, notices for challenging voters and complaint forms regarding the conduct of elections must all be bilingual.

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