SALEM — Advocates for the city's Latino community are signaling support for the city clerk and head election official in the aftermath of a weeks-long election trial focusing on the rights of a single Spanish-speaking voter.
Leaders with the Latino Leadership Coalition and The Point Neighborhood Association are endorsing the efforts of Ilene Simons, the city's clerk since 2018, and her elections department. This is despite the fact that the clerk's office is the only signature missing from a memorandum of understanding between Latino groups and city leaders in 2016 that served to correct tensions between voters and officials playing out at the time.
The city clerk's office, led then by Cheryl LaPointe, was defending itself from allegations that Latino voters were intimidated at the polls that year. The MOU that followed the allegations, signed on Feb. 23, 2016, committed to paper a "vision of the parties to ensure that all eligible residents within the city of Salem, Massachusetts are able to vote free of any barrier or practice that would impede or dissuade voting during any public election."
The document came up following the recent trial into the Ward 6 City Council election, where Ward 6 Councilor Megan Riccardi defeated challenger Jerry Ryan by a single vote. Most of the trial focused on a single Latino voter, Ulises Escalera, who attempted to vote just before polls closed but was denied access to a ballot for failing to bring proof of residency. A provisional ballot, often used in cases of failure to prove residency, wasn't provided before Escalera left voluntarily after polls closed. Testimony in the trial outlined that the ballot would've been declared ineligible for being cast after 8 p.m. The city eventually won in every decision in the trial.
The 2016 agreement, discussed frequently during the trial, was never signed by LaPointe after state officials cautioned the department against signing anything directed "to a specific category of the population," Simons said while testifying.
Lucy Corchado, president of The Salem Point Neighborhood Association, said Escalera's case wasn't handled perfectly. But that isn't a condemnation of Simons or her staff.
"I don't necessarily feel like he was disenfranchised," Corchado said. "The fact that he didn't have or needed to show confirmation of his address... then the provisional ballot should've been immediately provided, and it seemed like there was lag-time.
"That could've been improved clearly," Corchado continued. "With regard to the MOU, Ilene has done an amazing job in not only reaching out but actually meeting with the (Coalition) to ensure the voting process runs smoother than it has in the past."
Corchado said Simons has stood by the terms of the agreement "despite the clerk's office not signing off on the MOU."
LLC: Agreement is moot; Spanish ballots needed
Leaders in the Coalition, meanwhile, considers the document inconsequential without the clerk's signature — whether the terms are being followed or not.
"The LLC did work to introduce an MOU in 2016, but it was not something that was ever adopted by the city," wrote organization vice president Omar Sekou Longus via email. "Speaking personally, whether or not the city worked within the parameters of the MOU is a moot point because it was never adopted."
In a letter to the editor published this week, Longus and organization president Grace Duran further wrote that Simons "immediately began to investigate and shared her findings with the Coalition members" after election day. "The LLC felt Ms. Simons dealt with the matter professionally, ethically and thoroughly, as subsequently borne out by the court decision."
Still, relations are strained to an extent. In court testimony, the public learned Ryan wanted to further escalate Escalera's inability to vote in an effort to "stick it to the LLC."
"Those comments were not made to any members of the LLC directly, and we do not know the context," the organization wrote in a statement. "We would be willing to work with Mr. Ryan or any resident of our city to advance Salem and our mission of empowering and including Latinos in our community."
Then, there is the issue of Spanish ballots. The matter was before the City Council in 2017, but it was sent to the Council's ordinance committee — then led by Ryan — and died at the end of the year after the committee declined to move the matter out to the full City Council for a vote.
In their letter to the editor, Duran and Longus further wrote the organization plans to "renew efforts to work with the City Council and mayor in the hope of securing special legislation authorizing Spanish ballots in future elections."
That drive was cosigned by city Mayor Kim Driscoll when asked for what she viewed as priorities going forward.
"The only thing that immediately comes to mind is the issue of Spanish ballots, the former request by the Latino Leadership Coalition which died in committee," Driscoll said. "I'd hope that would be one that would be revived."
Simons still backs Spanish ballots
As it stands, the city is prohibited under state law from providing Spanish ballots. It can do so, however, with a home rule petition to Beacon Hill — precisely the effort made in 2017.
Simons said via email that she's still behind the state legislature green-lighting Spanish ballots in Salem.
"If it were up to me, I would have Spanish ballots for Salem for the upcoming 2020 elections," Simons wrote. "However, the state determines which cities/towns receive another language ballot according to the decennial U.S. census."
Being said, "if the City Council wishes to reintroduce the home rule petition to provide other language ballots, I'll be happy to support it as we (the former city clerk and myself) did two years ago," Simons said. "This special legislation would only apply to municipal elections."
Of course, that isn't the end of Simons' position on the matter. There's still the issue of the 2020 census and ensuring as many people respond to it as possible.
"We're working towards having every person counted in order to receive many benefits," Simons wrote. This includes "the basis for reapportioning congressional seats, redistricting and distributing more than $675 billion in federal funds annually to support states, counties and communities' vital programs — impacting housing, education, transportation, health care and also meeting the threshold to have Spanish ballots."