How Latino-heavy counties in PA stack up on voter accessibility
Spotlight Pa, in a joint project with Votebeat, surveyed all 67 Pennsylvania counties for voter friendliness. How did counties with the most Latinos do?
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Editor’s Note: This article uses the term ‘Latino’ interchangeably and refers to a broader Spanish-speaking group, including, but not limited to: Hispanic, Latina, Latinx, Latine, etc.
In late February, reporting nonprofits Spotlight Pa. and Votebeat published a wide-ranging survey that found gaps in election policy across PA’s 67 counties that created more than a few issues for voters regarding accessibility.
Drawing from the work conducted by Spotlight Pa. and Votebeat, AL DÍA looked into how the five PA counties with the most Latinos fared in the survey, using census data and findings by the Pennsylvania State Data Center.
What were the questions?
The survey asked counties to respond to questions about the voting process:
- Did your county allow ballot curing?
- How was curing done?
- Did the county inform voters of issues with their mail ballots?
- Did the county provide any drop boxes?
- Are the county's board of election meeting minutes posted online?
These questions point to a State Supreme Court decision in PA, affirming a lower court’s decision to allow for a process called ‘curing,’ or correcting, for ballots that had been mailed in by voters.
But first, some background
Population data for Spanish-speaking communities are constantly in motion. Aside from being the largest minority population in the country, the backgrounds of Latinos/Hispanics are starkly different from each other, and voting presents a new array of challenges for Spanish-speaking voters.
In few instances, Latinos residing in the U.S. don’t face insurmountable barriers when registering to vote in voter-friendly regions because they may have legal citizenship status, as is the case for Puerto Ricans and a very limited number of DACA recipients.
Other citizens may reside in the U.S. while in the process of seeking asylum, in other words, the data can shift quickly and is reliant upon the naturalization process in the nation, notoriously known for sluggish turnaround.
But even if a county has, say, a friendly registration process and accessible precincts, voters face other hurdles, such as language barriers.
One example is York County, as reported by AL DÍA in October, where there were virtually no Spanish-language materials or Spanish-speaking poll workers available despite York meeting the minimum threshold for Spanish-speaking residents under the Voting Rights Act.
After an immigrant rights group sued, York county updated voting materials and signage to include Spanish accessibility.
With that information in mind, here is how the counties with the highest number of Latinos scored on Spotlight Pa. and Votebeat’s test:
- Lehigh County
Lehigh county boasts the highest percentage of Spanish-speaking groups: 25.9%. Reporting by the Morning Call found a rapidly changing community in the county’s cities, with as many as 40,000 new Latino residents over 10 years.
Places like Allentown and South Whitehall Township, according to the Morning Call, saw a sharp increase in new residents, which its local representatives attributed to recent phenomena like Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Scorecard: Good. Lehigh County responded to all of the survey questions, has drop boxes, and had flexible options for ballot curing. Board of Elections meeting minutes are not available online.
2. Berks County
Berks County’s Latino population has grown by 23.2%, per the Pennsylvania State Data Center, and its cities have the diversity to show for it. Reading, according to the Reading Eagle, is PA’s fourth largest city — located in Berks — in addition to being home to one of the largest Latino populations. The political shifts in the region signal an increased Latino presence and participation in the electoral process.
In the 2022 midterms, Reading elected its first Dominican woman to the State House following reporting by AL DÍA News.
Scorecard: Medium to poor. Berks, in the 2022 midterms, had two drop boxes. Board of Elections meeting minutes are unavailable online, and the County “did not respond to survey request for additional information,” per Spotlight Pa. and Votebeat.
3. Monroe County
In keeping with a statewide trend of rising Latino neighborhoods across counties in PA, Monroe County serves as a poignant example. As population data showed a marginal decline, the census reported that Monroe saw unique gains in Latinos in 2021, from 22,288 to 28,558, according to reporting by the Pocono Record.
But Monroe seemingly has a ways to go to improve voter accessibility.
Scorecard: Poor. Monroe County had no drop-off boxes, although voters could take their mail ballots to a county office, and the minutes from the Board of Elections are unavailable online.
Monroe County “did not respond to survey request for additional information,” per Spotlight Pa. and Votebeat.
Philadelphia ranked fourth among counties with the highest concentration of Latinos.
The ethnic make-up of Latinos is strongly felt in the Northeast in neighborhoods like Kensington, Juniata, Norris Square, and Hunting Park. Those regions are also gridlocked by a political representation that is seemingly inherited.
At the state level, for example, districts 180 and 197 have been historically held by Latino men, and this could be reasoned through the amount of Spanish-speaking residents who reside in those districts, located in North Philly.
Scorecard: Great. Philly allows ballot curing, offering the option to request a replacement ballot, and communicates errors via emails on the voter registration application. Philly had 18 drop boxes, as well as other temporary locations. The board of election’s meeting minutes is available online.
5. Luzerne County
A fifth-place ranking doesn’t necessarily equate to a lack of Latino diversity in Luzerne County. In fact, Luzerne boasts a diversity surplus in cities like Hazleton, where, according to the census, Latinos make up 58.6% of its population.
Scorecard: Medium. Luzerne County provided four drop boxes, and the county’s board of elections has meeting minutes available online. They did not respond to other survey requests for additional information.