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Elections board considers whether to scrap bilingual ballots
Craig Lutz plans vote Jan. 16 to rescind April 2017 move and study cost

The Hall County Elections Board is set to vote Tuesday on whether to reverse its decision to adopt bilingual ballots — a move opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

The vote to provide Spanish ballots for county and state elections passed in April 2017 on party lines, and the board at that time was missing one Republican member. That meant Democrats Kim Copeland and Gala Sheats had a lock on all action taken by the board.

The ACLU announced on Friday it had sent a letter opposing a reversal of the policy.

Tom Smiley, chairman of the Hall County Elections Board, said Friday he was unaware of the letter and that so far as he had heard from the Hall County Elections Office, no staff were aware of it either.

Smiley was provided a copy of the letter and the ACLU announcement by The Times but said he had no comment on the ACLU position.

Hall County Elections Board members voted to adopt bilingual ballots following a move taken by Gwinnett County. However, members of the board are divided by political party — the board has two Republican and two Democratic members and a nonpartisan chairman.

Craig Lutz, a Republican, joined the board shortly after the bilingual ballot vote, balancing the number of Democrats and Republicans.

And in December, he said he “put the board on notice that (he) planned to rescind that motion at the next meeting” and that the issue needed to be investigated before a long-term decision is made.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners didn’t provide any funding for bilingual ballots in its fiscal year 2018 budget.

“I think it needs to be studied,” Lutz said. “I think we need to take a look at what is the actual cost? Are we actually disenfranchising anybody? What is actually being done? I don’t think this should be an emotional issue on either side.”

The ACLU of Georgia argues there could be legal problems with reversing course.

Sean Young, legal director for ACLU of Georgia, said in the letter that the move would be “un-American, and will move Hall County backwards, not forwards.” He also said it would likely be illegal under federal law.

More than a quarter of Hall County’s population is Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and about the same percent speaks a language other than English at home.

A section of the Voting Rights Act 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. Hall County’s attorney, Bill Blalock, has said the county voter rolls and election history show it doesn’t cross these thresholds.

However, Young said the issue is with Hall County residents from Puerto Rico. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 states that residents of Puerto Rico taught in classrooms where the predominant language was not English are entitled to ballots printed in their native language.

“There are at least 1,141 U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico living in Hall County,” Young said, noting that more people might have migrated into Hall recently because of the damage from Hurricane Maria. “... Thus, failing to provide bilingual English and Spanish information and materials for Hall County elections violates Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act with respect to a substantial number of U.S. citizens living in Hall County.”

The Elections Board is set to meet at 3 p.m. Tuesday at 2875 Browns Bridge Road. The board’s roster now includes Smiley, Lutz, Sheats, Republican Ken Cochran and Democrat Michelle Jones.