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Bilingual ballots could be six-figure proposition for Hall County
Elections board chair appoints panel to study issue
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Craig Lutz, a member of the Hall County Elections Board, speaks during a Jan. 16, 2018, Elections Board meeting in which the board rescinded a 2017 vote to adopt bilingual ballots for county and state elections. - photo by David Barnes

How much would bilingual ballots cost in Hall County? Estimates differ depending on who you ask.

The question will be investigated by the Hall County Elections Board this year after the board voted to rescind an earlier action approving bilingual ballots in the county. 

Those on the board who supported rescinding the 2017 vote said the county didn’t yet know the cost of moving forward with Spanish-language ballots in the county. The same group also supported creating a committee to investigate how much the initiative might cost the county.

The committee will have two members, Ken Cochran and Michelle Sanchez Jones.

The board is split down Republican and Democratic party lines, with two members of each being appointed by the parties and a chairman, the fifth vote, being appointed by the Hall County Board of Commissioners.

Cochran is a Republican and Jones a Democrat. They were appointed by Elections Board Chairman Tom Smiley, and they’ll investigate just how much it will cost the county to offer bilingual ballots in upcoming elections. Smiley revealed his choices for the committee to The Times on Monday.

The results of their investigation are due in 2019 — after the state and local elections of 2018.

Some cost estimates have already been made.

Ultimately, the decision of whether to fund bilingual ballots rested with the Hall County Board of Commissioners, which in 2017 decided against funding the request from the board.

From the county’s view, duplicating election materials in another language could add up to six figures.

During a presidential election, Hall County could spend as much as $150,000 duplicating English ballots for Spanish-language voters, according to the county. Meanwhile, Hispanic voting-rights advocates say the cost could be much lower.

That estimate comes from the interim director of the Hall County Elections Office.

“We’ve looked at it every which way, and you’re talking signs, duplicate ballots, Spanish-speaking staff,” Bill Moats told The Times in late 2017. “For a large election like we had in 2016, it was north of $150,000.”

On Monday, the county called that figure a “very rough estimate.”

“The Elections Board’s decision to form a committee to further research those costs in greater detail should help give the county a better and more thorough understanding of the costs associated with bilingual ballots,” said Hall County spokeswoman Katie Crumley.

Craig Lutz, a Republican member of the board, sponsored the vote to scrap bilingual ballots in Hall County. He also moved to create the committee charged with studying the cost of Spanish-language ballots, saying earlier this month that the county needed to research the issue to see what the costs would be and also research whether voters were being disenfranchised with English-only ballots.

Cochran said during the meeting that Spanish-language voters always have the option to bring interpreters into the voting booth with them and entreated the public to work as interpreters during the election.

Voting rights advocates supporting bilingual ballots have said that county demographics — especially given that more than a quarter of its population is Latino — means it will be forced by the federal government to adopt Spanish-language ballots in the next few years under federal elections law.

One of those same groups, the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, believes adopting Spanish-language ballots could be a slightly less expensive proposition than the county expects.

LatinoJustice PRLDEF, long known as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, wrote to the county in 2017 comparing Hall County to a county in Florida.

At the time, Osceola County had 310,211 residents and 100,903 of those were Latino — about a third of the population, compared to Hall County’s quarter of the population. Hall County has only about 200,000 people as a whole.

In the Florida County, it cost $47,221 to offer Spanish-language ballots in the 2016 presidential primary and $60,900 in the general, putting the total cost at about $108,000 in Florida.