It's unclear what the stated rationale for the move is. Neither Spakovsky nor Carol Ann Coryell, the other board member who voted for the change, immediately responded to requests for comment.
The shift might not sound like such a big deal, in part because the forms will still be available online, and will still be processed if submitted. But Fairfax County is exceptionally diverse. More than a third of residents speak a language other than English in their homes, and 28 percent are foreign born, according to a recent report. Distributing registration forms at public events is a key way to reach new potential voters, especially those who aren't likely to go looking online. So the move, say some Democrats, will likely make it harder for significant numbers of non-English speaking people -- predominantly Democrats, of course -- to vote.
Chap Petersen, a Democratic state senator whose district is in Fairfax County, called the move "a step backwards." He told TPMmuckraker: "It's pretty clear that the effect will be to limit opportunities for non-English people to register to vote even if they are citizens."
"My district has a high population of Korean, Middle Eastern, and South-East Asian immigrants," Petersen added, noting that his wife is Korean. "We have a lot of people that are citizens, that pay taxes [whose] first languages are Korean" or others, he said. "And everyone gets that."
Not the Board of Elections, it seems.
Spakovsky has served as the national GOP's go-to "expert" on efforts to make it more difficult for minority and low-income Americans to vote. He was nominated by President Bush to the FEC, but Senate Democrats refused to confirm him, citing his consistent opposition to efforts to expand voting rights.
The news of the vote was first reported by the progressive blog Not Larry Sabato.
Late Update (4/9/10): Spakovsky, who didn't respond to our request, writes in an email to election law expert Rick Hasen, who had picked up on our post:
Your citing of the TPM report on me fails to note its inaccuracies. The claim by TPM that the Electoral Board voted to end the distribution of foreign language voting materials is flat-out wrong: Fairfax County has never provided any voting materials of any kind in any language other than English. Fairfax County is not a Section 203 jurisdiction -- it is not covered by the requirements of that part of the statute. The Board made very clear at its meeting, however, that it would process all voter registration materials received in all languages and that if and when the County became certified under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, it would do everything it needed to do to comply with the statute -- that can be confirmed by the minutes. What was at issue was a proposal to start providing voter registration forms in other languages on a voluntary basis, but only in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Korean, even though there is no federal or state law requiring Fairfax County to do so. That proposal was not approved. It would, in any case, have been at best problematic and possibly discriminatory, since Fairfax County has a substantial population of individuals who speak Indo-European and other languages (like Arabic) -- yet no proposal was being made to provide translated voter registration materials for those other groups and no such forms are readily available to the staff in those other languages.
We're looking into the issues raised here, and will update this post again.
* Late Late Update (04/13/10): This sentence has been corrected from an earlier version, which inaccurately reported that Spakovsky had voted to stop handing out voting materials in languages other than English. In fact, after the registrar informed the board that the Office of Elections intended to begin distributing Spanish, Vietnamese, and Korean materials, as part of the Office's outreach to language minority communities, Spakovsky introduced and supported a motion declaring that the Office should not distribute voting materials in any language other than English (full text below). We regret the error.
However, Spakovsky's assertion that "Fairfax County has never provided any voting materials of any kind in any language other than English" appears also to be inaccurate.
The registrar, Edgardo Cortes, told TPMmuckraker that non-English voting materials had not been handed out during his tenure, which began in August 2009. But Larry Byrne, who served on the board from 2003 until 2006, told TPMmuckraker that during that period, the board provided voting materials in Spanish and Vietnamese, in order to comply with the Help America Vote Act, which sought to make voting easier. Byrne said that doing so was uncontroversial, and did not require a specific vote to authorize.
It's unclear when the board stopped handing out non-English voting materials. But it appears that the effect of Spakovsky's motion was to make the board's distribution practices more restrictive than they had been in Byrne's day, rather than merely stymieing a bid to make them more expansive, as his statement implies.