If Hall County is required to adopt bilingual ballots in 2021, so too would its municipalities — from Gainesville, which is more than 40 percent Latino, to Clermont, which is 96 percent white.
The issue surfaced during a meeting of the Hall County Board of Elections and Voter Registration this month, when board members talked with their Gwinnett County peers who were forced by the federal government to adopt Spanish-language ballots in 2017.
Section 203 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires that counties with large enough populations of certain minority groups provide elections materials in their native languages. The law also applies to all cities in those counties.
The issue of Spanish-language ballots was a tricky one for voters in Gwinnett County, according to Steve Day and John Mangano, the chairman and vice chairman of the Gwinnett elections board, respectively.
“We provide the (voter) registration for the cities, but the conduction of the elections — sometimes they’ll rent the machines from us, but they have their own staff that conducts their own elections and counts the ballots,” Day said during the meeting.
Mangano noted that Gwinnett County made Spanish-language signs part of the rental agreement, which smoothed part of the election process in 2017. However, cities were still left to pay for their own translations for ballots and advertising and fund translation services during Election Day itself for Spanish-language voters who filled out voter information at their precinct.
Last year, Gwinnett’s first go-round with bilingual elections was difficult enough that it prompted the elections board to explore taking over municipal elections.
“Steve and I and our committee, we’ve kind of started this strategic look for elections in Gwinnett County, and so we are actually working on a letter now to send to the mayor about that idea — about absorbing municipal elections,” Mangano said. “Mainly because we did hear some grumblings about poor translations.”
Should Gwinnett follow through, the county and its almost 1 million residents would have an elections system that looks more like Hall’s, where the county handles all municipal elections except for Clermont, Gillsville and Lula, according to Paige Nix, elections coordinator for Hall County.
Accurate translations at the local level are critical for the elections process, as state government provides no translation assistance. In 2017, when elections logistics and data storage for Georgia were handled by Kennesaw State’s Center for Election Systems, Gwinnett County had no help ensuring that translations were accurate.
Because of the elections records scandal at Kennesaw last year, the Georgia secretary of state’s office is pulling all of the outsourced operations at the university back into the office, according to Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
“It’s incumbent upon Gwinnett to give the exact translation, and (state elections staff) just type it in,” Day told members of the Hall elections board. “They’re not going to do any translation services at all — it’s all incumbent upon us, and that’s why we have to be very, very careful in the translation process.”
That could be a tall order for Hall County’s small cities — and an unnecessary order. In the 2010 census, Clermont had 875 residents. Town Clerk Sandra Helton said on Wednesday she believed the town had grown by less than 100 people since then.
And in 2010, the population was 96 percent white. Helton has also served as the town’s elections superintendent for more than 13 years and said she had never once had a non-English speaker show up to vote.
Regardless, should Hall County’s status with the U.S. Census Bureau, which decides whether counties meet the thresholds to require bilingual ballots, change in 2021, Clermont, Gillsville (99 percent white) and Lula (89 percent white, 8 percent black) would change along with it.
“The language provisions of the Act apply to registration for and voting in any type of election, whether it is a primary, general or special election,” states the guidance from the Department of Justice. “This includes elections of officers as well as elections regarding such matters as bond issues, constitutional amendments and referendums. Federal, state and local elections are covered as are elections of special districts, such as school districts and water districts.”
For the municipalities who contract with Hall County elections, their elections bill would increase to cover the additional costs of translations, but the three other municipalities would have to come up with their own Spanish-language elections materials.
Adopting Spanish-language ballots in Gwinnett County cost more than $700,000 in 2017, according to Day, but that number will be less in future years because of startup costs involved in making signs and other reusable elections material.
Because Gwinnett is almost five times the size of Hall County, the bill in Hall would be less but still likely more than $100,000, according to local elections officials. Hall County budgeted more than $1 million for the elections office in 2016, a presidential election year.