Montgomery County is one of five upstate counties to not comply fully with recent voting rights orders from the state Attorney General’s Office.
In August, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent letters to 10 upstate counties with large Puerto Rican populations, telling them to make more of an effort to accommodate Spanish-speaking voters at the polls. Since then, Schenectady and four other counties have signed binding memorandums of agreement with the Attorney General’s Office.
At a meeting of the Education and Government Committee on Feb. 12, Montgomery County supervisors voted not to move their memorandum to the full board for approval — a decision that may open the county to lawsuits.
According to Michelle Hook, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, memorandums of agreement were drafted for each of the 10 counties establishing basically the same things: All polling places located in census tracts where the Puerto Rican population is 5 percent or more must have a translator on hand and be stocked with Spanish-language ballots and translations of all voting literature. Board of elections websites should be translated, as well as all the notices and other literature mailed out before an election.
Schenectady County agreed just weeks after receiving the letter.
“We made a conscious decision to reach out to the attorney general early in the process,” said Elections Commissioner Art Brassard. “We’re firm believers in being the masters of our own destiny.”
By moving funds within the department, Republican Brassard and fellow Commissioner Brian Quail, a Democrat, were able to make the adjustments without requesting extra money from the county, effectively skirting the need for legislative approval.
Montgomery County was not so quick.
According to Montgomery County Board of Elections Commissioner Jamie Duchessi, his office was not authorized to just sign the agreement on its own, but had to get approval from the Board of Supervisors since some of the provisions might cost the county extra money.
However, of all the actions the Attorney General’s Office asked Montgomery County to take, Duchessi said, only one remains incomplete.
“We’re in compliance with most of what they asked,” he said.
In time for November’s election, he said his office coordinated with Centro Civico in Amsterdam to post translators at polling sites near Puerto Rican neighborhoods. There were also translated ballots and signs. Even the website got a new language selection menu.
The only thing Duchessi admits they didn’t do was translate notices sent out in the mail before the election.
“We still have to decide if we’re going to do that,” he said.
Translating a few mailings might not seem like much to ask in a county of over 8 percent Puerto Rican origin, but County Attorney Douglas Landon suggested one reason the agreement was not signed.
“It’s a matter of why we need to sign something like this,” he said. “Whether we are actually in violation of the attorney general’s orders.”
According to Hook, the attorney general is not currently planning any legal action to force Montgomery County to sign the agreement or comply with the last of their requests.
“We’ll have to watch them in action,” she said, adding that her office will have to wait for the next election to see if the county has done enough for Spanish speakers. If the process has not been streamlined enough, the office may have to pursue legal options, “but we’re still trying to work with them at this point,” she said.
Since the letters went out, Putnam, Dutchess, Schenectady, Rockland and Ulster counties have signed memorandums of agreement. By process of elimination, that leaves Erie, Monroe, Chautauqua, Sullivan, and Montgomery counties yet to agree.