La Plata and Montezuma counties are now required to provide language assistance during elections to the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes per the minority language provision of the Voting Rights Act.
On Monday, the U.S. Census Bureau published a list of political subdivisions that must provide language assistance during elections for those who don’t speak or understand English.
Before the 2010 census, the two counties were required to provide language services to tribal members and did so by keeping a volunteer interpreter on standby. But their services were never requested, La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Parker said.
“At this point, we need to meet with the tribe and determine what the best choice will be,” Parker said. La Plata County wants to reappoint a volunteer interpreter and avoid the steep cost of printing bilingual ballots, as other local governments do at their own expense.
“It’s very difficult to find someone to transcribe or translate all the ballot questions – and both languages would have to be on the same ballot,” Parker said. “I was shocked this week. We had no idea we’d be doing this. It’s literally based off census data, not by request. I thought we would see more interest in Spanish – not that we have a big request for that, either.”
Parker said the clerk’s office does not track the number of Southern Ute tribal members registered to vote.
“We’re going to meet and work together, and do what we have to do,” she said.
County and tribal officials plan to meet next month to work out the details, which must be determined by the next election.
There are about 1,500 Southern Ute tribal members. It is unclear how many speak their native language, but elders have estimated fewer than 25 are fluent, and they also speak English.
Peter Ortego, attorney for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, said Thursday he had not heard of the new mandate, but was certain the tribe would be supportive.
“It’s (Ute) very commonly spoken on the reservation,” he said. “They speak it at council meetings among themselves. It’s very well-preserved. I’m not sure how many would prefer Ute over English, but our chairman does. There are people still out there more comfortable with Ute than with English.”
About 1,100 people live on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation.
“The courts sometimes provide interpreters, so there is some recognition from the federal government that some people need support,” Ortega said. “This is an extension of that.”
Calls to the leadership in both tribes were not returned Thursday.
Four other Colorado counties must provide Spanish language assistance.
The 2010 census required Denver and Costilla counties to provide bilingual ballots in English and Spanish, something Denver County has done since 2002. This year, the Census Bureau added Conejos and Saguache counties to the list, and exempted Rio Grande County, which appears to find the process flawed.
In a news release from the Colorado Secretary of State, Rio Grande County Clerk Cindy Hill isn’t sure why the county was included previously, telling Secretary of State Wayne Williams that “a number of people with Hispanic surnames in the county do not speak Spanish.”
Calls to the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Census Bureau were not returned.
According to the Census Bureau website, political subdivisions containing tribal lands are covered under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act if more than 5 percent of voting-age tribal members are limited-English proficient and the rate of those citizens who also have less than a fifth-grade education is higher than the national rate of 1.16.