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Elections board, Latino political group at odds over translation mix-up at polls
GALEO accuses county of discriminating against Spanish-speaking voter; official says not so, that rule was broken
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Angela Middleton waves to cars passing by at her voter registration table outside Tasty Grill on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials has accused Hall County of discriminating against a Spanish-speaking voter on Wednesday, but county officials say the voter was violating a different rule that bans discussion of politics or ballot measures too close to the polls.

Lori Wurtz, Hall’s elections director, and Tom Smiley, the chairman of the elections board, both said the voter was still able to cast a ballot during early voting at the Hall County Government Center Wednesday afternoon.

According to a press release from GALEO, the voter, who speaks Spanish as his first language, overheard some other voters speaking Spanish and asked one to stand in as his translator. Under the Voting Rights Act, voters are allowed to have a translator with them at the polls.

But then, according to GALEO, the Spanish-speaking voters were confronted by a white female voter who said they were not allowed to use translation help. According to GALEO, when the Spanish-speaking voters asked poll workers for help, a county marshal said they could not seek a translator until they were inside the polling place.

Smiley said the marshal who handled the situation is fluent in Spanish. According to Smiley and Wurtz, it appears that the issue was not that the voter was seeking a translator — voters can bring a translator or ask that one is provided for them — but that the Spanish-speaking voters were talking about what was on the ballot, which is not allowed at polling places by state law.

Smiley said the voter was able to cast a ballot Wednesday using a translator.

Gabriel Velazquez Jr. of Gainesville said he was the person who offered to help translate. He was waiting in line with a friend and was speaking Spanish with her when the man in front of them, who he had never met, mentioned he did not speak English and he did not know what was on the ballot. Velazquez said the man asked for help, so Velazquez went back to the beginning of the line to ask a poll worker what he needed to do to translate. Velazquez said he was told to let the poll workers at the front of the line know about the situation.

Velazquez said he showed the man a sample ballot and started translating the ballot while they were waiting in line.

“At no point at all did I mention any party, did I mention any candidates or did I give a hint as to how I personally voted,” said Velazquez, who owns the restaurant Taqueria El Mercadito.

A woman nearby then accused Velazquez of telling the man how to vote, and Velazquez said he then explained to the woman he was just translating.

A marshal approached the group and Velazquez said he was told that he could only translate at the booth, not while waiting in line. Velazquez said he did not want to risk anything for the man he was helping, so he listened to the marshal.

“He was just trying to do his civic duty, and I was just trying to help him out,” Velazquez said.

Velazquez said he and the man for whom he translated felt discouraged.

“People will say, as immigrants, we’re supposed to assimilate into the culture,” he said. “This is an instance where we were doing the most patriotic of things, voting and doing our civic duty, and yet we’re still being intimidated by certain individuals.”

GALEO called for Hall County to retrain its poll workers about voters’ right to have a translator, but Smiley said that poll workers are already well-trained.

“I take great exception to just a statement that we need re-training because this event did not indicate any need for re-training,” he said.

According to GALEO, the organization has contacted the Georgia Secretary of State office and the county elections board.

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