Though decisions by the Hall County Board of Commissioners usually have lasting impact, a recent request to provide election materials only in English could become a moot point as early as next year.
Georgia is on the cusp of a population shift that would trigger a federal government requirement to provide bilingual voting materials, and is likely to cross it after the 2010 census.
Hall County Interim Elections Superintendent Charlotte Sosebee said she expects to be required to offer materials in Spanish soon.
"I think we are about to cross that threshold," Sosebee said.
"It will probably affect the 2012 election, if it happens."
Sosebee said in the Nov. 3 municipal elections, there were 86,260 eligible voters in Hall County. Of that number, 4.16 percent were identified as Hispanic.
The Language Minority Provision of the Voting Rights Act, also known as Section 203, sets out specific requirements for areas with large, single-language minority groups.
If more than 10,000 people or 5 percent of all voting age citizens speak a single language and are limited in English proficiency, all voting information, including ballots, available in English must also be provided in the minority language.
Alejandro Miyar, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said there are no jurisdictions in Georgia now covered by Section 203.
"Covered jurisdictions are determined by the Census Bureau after each census based upon a formula set out in the Voting Rights Act," Miyar said. "The most recent determinations were made in July 2002."
Miyar said individual counties, towns and even boroughs are covered by Section 203, not just states.
Gerson D. Vasquez, a partnership specialist with the Bureau of the Census, said the 2010 census could change Hall County’s election requirements.
"We are No. 10 in the nation, Georgia is, in total Hispanic/Latino counting estimates," Vasquez said. "That’s really the population that’s going to be pushing the envelope as far as percentages go. They’re the biggest minority language-wise in Georgia."
Vasquez said the Voting Rights Act is one of the reasons an accurate census count is so crucial.
"The Equal Voting Rights Act and civil rights legislation of all sorts is one of the big reasons census data is so important," Vasquez said. "Whether it be equal employment opportunity or several other equality-based legislations, it makes a big deal what the census counts are because they want the workplace or the voting booth to reflect the needs of the community."
Voting signs from the Nov. 3 Gainesville elections, which read "vote here today" as well as "vote hoy aqui," drew a critical eye during the last Hall commission meeting Nov. 12.
The commission asked Sosebee to explain why the signs were necessary. She said that while the bilingual signs were simply an accidental delivery, they may be a federal requirement soon.
"If it’s a law, we’re required to do it," Sosebee said. "It’s providing that service for people who are registered to vote."
Commissioner Ashley Bell said he doesn’t think Spanish voting materials are necessary.
"I believe Hall County schools and the city of Gainesville school system have invested millions of dollars in teaching first generation Americans English," Bell said. "Over the last decade, we have a lot of people whose parents may have been born in another country but they were either born here or have learned English to an extraordinary proficiency to the point where those numbers may not actually reflect the need."
Bell said most citizens should be proficient enough in English to vote.
"To become an American citizen, you have to have a basic understanding of English as a part of the test," Bell said. "I would assume if you can do that, you should be able to read a ballot and interpret it in English."
Bell said if the census numbers reflect a large enough population, he would challenge the need for across-the-board voting materials in Spanish.
"I think if the federal government makes us do it, it should be on a case-by-case basis, whoever needs it," Bell said. "I think we know our community better than the federal government."
Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said he was surprised to hear about the commission’s hostility toward bilingual voting materials.
"Those comments weren’t necessarily very appropriate or sensitive to the needs of that demographic," Gonzalez said. "That is what the law is. Quite simply."
"It’s about making sure we can protect all citizens access to the voting booth."