One of the Russian-speaking community’s top priorities in the just-ended legislative session in Albany was passage of a bill that would have mandated the New York City Board of Elections to translate into Russian all voting materials used at polling stations across the city.After all, those materials are already being translated into Spanish, Chinese and Korean, and the State Assembly had overwhelmingly passed a version of the bill in June.So when the State Senate scotched it at the 11th hour, speculation began to fly about who was behind it. According to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn), the surprising culprit is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a political figure who, until now, has been extremely popular among Russian Jews.Kruger said that prior to the intervention of
unnamed Albany operatives of the mayor in the matter earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R- Saratoga Springs), who determines the legislative agenda in that body, “gave every indication he was supportive of the bill.”Then, according to Kruger, two days before the end of the session, the mayor’s representatives pointed out to Bruno’s staff that “this bill is an unfunded mandate and there will be a cost factor involved [for New York City]. The next thing we knew,” Kruger said, “the bill was pulled from the agenda.”
Kruger asserted, “The only reason the bill didn’t reach the floor was that it was not supported by City Hall. The mayor’s office didn’t want to eat the cost, although, in my estimate, it would not be a huge amount of money — basically a printing job in the range of tens of thousands of dollars. “In the process of saving that small amount of money, the Republicans frustrated my effort and that of many other legislators to give a comfort level at the polls to thousands of Russian-speakers who don’t speak English well enough to understand the ballot.” Kruger’s account concerning Bloomberg, which was confirmed by Assemblyman William Colton (D-Brooklyn), the sponsor of the successful Russian-language Assembly bill, drew a sharp denial from Bloomberg spokesman Stuart Loeser. “It is categorically untrue that the mayor or his representatives played any role in convincing Bruno to kill the Russian-language bill,” Loeser said.
Yet Loeser acknowledged that Bloomberg did not endorse the Krueger bill, arguing that it would be difficult to go forward with such a change at a time when the city is waiting for the state government to pass legislation authorizing it to buy new voting machines. Bruno’s office did not return calls seeking comment.The New York City Board of Elections has long opposed efforts to add Russian to the short list of languages in which the ballot is now printed; they have maintained that to do so before the census of 2010 would be a violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act, and would encourage other ethnic groups with sizable populations in New York to push for their languages to be included as well.
Loeser emphasized that the Board of Elections is independent of the city administration, yet confirmed that the city’s Law Department is obligated to defend the Board of Elections in the event it is sued. For their part, political activists in the Russian community and sympathetic elected officials from heavily Russian-speaking areas of South Brooklyn — including Kruger, Colton and Assembly members Alec Brook-Krasny (the first Russian-speaking representative in the Legislature) and Helene Weinstein — have long complained about the inability of many Russian voters to decipher the New York City ballot in English. They have pointed out that many Russian-speaking voters who arrive at the polls are unsure how to operate voting machines and do not understand how to vote for less-publicized races such as for judgeships or on referendums.
They point out that according to 2006 U.S. Census figures, Russian is currently the third most widely spoken foreign language in New York City after Spanish and Chinese, with 198,969 speakers as opposed to Korean, which is only the ninth most spoken language with 75,175 speakers.Noting that they are not opposed to languages in addition to Russian being included on the ballot, supporters of the legislation point to the action of the Chicago Board of Elections, which several years ago expanded the number of languages in which its ballot is published to 16; the new ballots included not only Russian, but also less-spoken languages like Bosnian, Gujarati and Assyrian. The advocates said that Chicago’s action showed that the Voting Rights Act does not impede expanding the number of languages in which election material appears. In comments to The Jewish Week, Board of Elections Chairman John Ravitz made clear he continues to oppose any such expansion. “We have to adhere to Section 203 of Federal Voting Rights Act, which clearly states that in New York City we must have all our voter material in English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean,” Ravitz said. “I’ve explained to members of the Russian community that we want to work with them, but can’t just start printing one language on the ballot and not expect speakers of other languages like Hindi or Creole not to ask for the same right.”
Asked about the expansion of the ballot in Chicago, Ravitz responded, “The question is what is Chicago’s budget for this. There would certainly be a fiscal cost for New York if we were to increase our printing. That’s not our No. 1 concern, but it’s a reality.” Ravitz acknowledged he does not know how much it would cost to add Russian to the languages on the New York City ballot.Fira Stuckleman, a leader of the politically active population of Russian-speaking retirees, who worked as a volunteer for Bloomberg during the 2005 mayoral campaign, said, “It’s hard for me to believe Bloomberg would have opposed this bill, which is of critical importance to our community. When Bloomberg spoke at a community forum in Brighton Beach two years ago, he promised to support getting election material in Russian.” Brook-Krasny expressed disappointment with the demise of the Senate bill, but said he plans to work for passage during the next legislative session.
Noting that a number of New York City agencies routinely publish material in Russian, Brook-Krasny said, “For example, there is information on recycling in Russian. If they found the money [to publish in Russian about] recycling, why not for voting?”