Calls have renewed for Hall County to provide Spanish-language ballots for Latino voters after the U.S. Census Bureau applied a new designation to Gwinnett County this week that will require it to become the first county in the state to offer bilingual voting materials.
The issue first reared its head last year when the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials challenged elections boards in Hall and Gwinnett to provide bilingual ballots, citing provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act as justification.
Both boards denied the request, with Hall officials saying that the requisite population percentages had not been met.
“But now that Gwinnett County has to do this, they can be used as a model for how other places can implement it,” said Jerry Gonzalez, GALEO executive director.
The applicable designation for Gwinnett has its origins in the Voting Rights Act section that mandates providing bilingual ballots if more than 5 percent or 10,000 citizens of voting age in a particular jurisdiction are members of a single-language minority where English fluency is not common.
More than 170,000 Latinos reside in Gwinnett, and about 28 percent of Hall residents are Latino, or more than 54,000 individuals.
Hall County saw a surge of new Latino voters ahead of the 2016 elections, with more than 1,000 joining the voter rolls between October 2015 and October 2016, according to numbers from the Hall elections office.
There were more than 5,200 active Latino voters in Hall in November, up from just 3,822 in the 2014 election cycle.
Coming into the year, Latinos made up 2.1 percent of Georgia’s 4.9 million voters, while whites accounted for 58.2 percent and African-Americans 29.3 percent.
Tommy Sandoval, one of two Republicans on the Hall elections board, said he would oppose efforts now and in the future to offer bilingual ballot access to minority voters.
Sandoval’s grandfather came to America from Spain, and Sandoval said he encourages more participation among Latino and Hispanic citizens in the political and electoral process.
“I want them to vote,” Sandoval said. “But I want them to do that in a unifying manner.”
Offering bilingual ballots would “further separate us rather than bringing us together,” he added.
Sandoval believes a younger generation of Latinos are more likely to speak English as opposed to older, first-generation immigrants.
GALEO was active at the polls in Hall and across the state during this year’s elections, helping voters who needed translation assistance.
And any voter is allowed to be accompanied at the ballot box by a friend or relative if they need help understanding English-language ballots.
But Gonzalez said he is confident that expanding bilingual ballot access in Hall will get more Latinos to the polls.
He said increasing Latino participation in census surveys will help push the issue forward and possibly allow Hall to receive the same designation that Gwinnett now has.
“That’s part of the education process that we have to work on,” Gonzalez added. “It does have implications that can benefit our community.”