Some Spanish-speaking voters in a Pennsylvania city where Hispanics account for nearly 70% of the population are at risk of being disenfranchised in next week’s general election because of an error in Spanish-language instructions that accompanied 17,000 mail-in ballots, activists and elected officials said Thursday.
Berks County mailed erroneous Spanish-language instructions that said the ballots had to be returned by Nov. 18 — 16 days past the actual deadline of 8 p.m. on Election Day. Voters who got the botched instructions include those in Reading, population 95,000, a growing city in southeastern Pennsylvania with the state’s highest percentage of Latino people.
The incorrect date did not appear on the ballot itself, and Berks County sent a follow-up letter to the affected voters and enlisted Hispanic groups to do outreach. But people rallying outside the Berks County Courthouse on Thursday demanded that county officials do more.
“The harm has already been done,” said Patty Torres, organizing director for Make the Road Pennsylvania, an advocacy group for immigrants and working-class Latinos. Torres decried what she called “voter misinformation” from Berks County and said any voter who received the incorrect instructions should be permitted to return their mail-in ballot until Nov. 18 and still have it counted.
That suggestion was rejected by county officials, who said they had no legal authority to extend the deadline. The Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, agreed, saying such an extension would have to be ordered by a court.
Torres also asked the county to retain any ballots received between Nov. 2 and Nov. 18 "so an investigation can take place into whether the ballots were returned according to the erroneous instructions sent by the county, in which case they should be honored.”
County officials said that they do not know many Spanish-speaking voters received the botched instructions, since voters get instructions in both English and Spanish, but that about 2,800 of the ballots went to voters in precincts federally designated as bilingual.
County officials said the error happened when Spanish-language mail-in ballot instructions that were used in the May 18 primary were updated for the November general election. A worker switched the month from May to November, but neglected to change the date of the deadline, the county said.
Meeting Thursday, the Berks County Board of Commissioners took action to strengthen the procedure for having Spanish-language voting materials reviewed for accuracy.
All three members of the board — two Republicans and one Democrat — rejected suggestions made by activists and others that the flawed ballot instructions represented a deliberate attempt to suppress Latino votes.
“This is not a partisan issue. It was an honest mistake and we take responsibility,” GOP Commissioner Christian Leinbach said at the meeting.
Those rallying outside the Berks County Courthouse cast the error as just the latest in a series of obstacles to voting faced by the area’s fast-growing Latino population, including hourslong waits to vote in last year’s presidential election. They pointed out that the U.S. Department of Justice sued Berks County as far back as 2003 over its failure to provide language accommodations for Spanish-speaking voters.
“When is enough enough?" said state Rep. Manuel Guzman Jr., D-Reading. “How many mistakes need to happen before somebody is held accountable?”
The ballot for Tuesday’s election includes statewide judicial races, as well as local races for city and county offices and the school board.