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Ballot languages causing stir

By Michelle Durand
Daily Journal Staff (10-10-02)

As the nearly 330,000 registered voters throughout San Mateo County receive sample ballots in the mail this week, more than a few are frustrated with the new format which includes information in three languages.

Federal law now mandates that election materials be available in a county's primary languages. For San Mateo County, that means English, Chinese and Spanish. County election officials spent about $500,000 designing and printing the new documents but are now fielding phone calls from residents who can't figure them out.

"The government says it must be printed in multiple languages but doesn't say how to do it. Some genius here designed it this way and I'm not sure why," said San Mateo resident Alice Weiner.

Weiner cited the "minute" print and close proximity of the different languages as the two reason she was frustrated while trying to read up on the names of candidates and measures.

Elections Manager David Tom said his office fields five to 10 calls each day this week about the sample ballot and expects that number to increase as more residents receive their pamphlets.

"Obviously it is the first time San Mateo County had to produce a sample ballot in three languages. It is totally different than how it looked before," Tom said.

Tom said many of the callers hadn't taken the time to read the new instructions closely or did not realize that the ballots would be different this year. He said one man called in frustration because when he flipped the booklet open he landed in the Chinese language section and assumed there was no English portion.

Even San Mateo County Supervisor Jerry Hill, who received two phone calls from bewildered constituents over the ballots, admitted some confusion.

"I was looking for the English portion of one item and was having a hard time finding it. But, I'm sure there's a method to it," he said.

Hill said the callers told him that the ballots are "impossible to read and they couldn't understand what to do with it."

Tom said anyone mystified by the ballot should rip it out of the booklet because it then appears more familiar. He also suggested they read the instruction portion carefully.

The actual ballot used on Nov. 5 will look exactly like the sample one although poll workers are expected to answer any final questions.

However, at least one resident is not perturbed by the print size or the proximity of the languages. Rather, the man, who declined to state his name, believes English should be the only language printed.

"It is disgraceful for those people who consider themselves Americans," he said.

Every 10 years, following the new census, the government reassesses what languages a ballot should be in. If the demographics of San Mateo County change in the next decade more languages could be required.