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Elections Board scraps plans to provide ballots in Spanish
Board rescinds April 2017 vote, which chairman called an ‘error’ and ‘negligent’
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Gala Sheats and Craig Lutz, both members of the Hall County Elections Board, speak to each other Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, during an Elections Board meeting discussing rescinding a 2017 vote to adopt bilingual ballots for county and state election. The decision to provide ballots in Spanish was rescinded by a 3-2 vote. - photo by David Barnes

Hall County reversed course Tuesday when the Hall County Elections Board voted to scrap plans to provide ballots in Spanish.

Board members voted Tuesday to rescind an April vote to adopt the new ballots for county and state elections amid heavy opposition from the public.

At the same meeting, the board voted to establish a committee to study the costs, but that committee wouldn’t report its findings until January 2019.

The vote to rescind the ballots was 3-2, with the board’s two Democrats against rescinding, its Republicans in favor and nonpartisan Chairman Tom Smiley also voting in favor of rescinding the 2017 vote.

More than a dozen speakers testified in favor of bilingual ballots, saying it was the right thing to do on ethical, financial and patriotic grounds. Speakers included Hall County residents and representatives from Latino groups and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Jerry Gonzalez, head of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, noted that many other counties and governments had been hit with multimillion-dollar lawsuits tied to voting rights.

Craig Lutz, the member of the Elections Board who requested the bilingual ballot issue be reconsidered by the board, said the county didn’t know the cost of bilingual ballots and said having English-only ballots wouldn’t disenfranchise voters.

Lutz also offered the motion to create the committee to study the costs of providing ballots in Spanish. That motion was unanimously approved.

Smiley took a hard line against the 2017 vote to adopt bilingual ballots, saying it was out of order because the Elections Board doesn’t have the authority to spend money or dedicate money.

As a result, he said the 2017 motion was a “gross error” and “negligent.” He said the board could recommend the Hall County Board of Commissioners adopt bilingual ballots, but not order commissioners to spend money.

Lutz and Ken Cochran, both Republicans, voted to rescind the new ballots. Democrats Gala Sheats and Michelle Sanchez Jones voted against rescinding.

Last year’s vote was intended to accommodate a growing number of Spanish speakers in the county, but the ballots weren’t funded in the Hall County budget approved in June.

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

Some controversy surrounded the April vote because of the makeup of the board at the time. The five-member board includes two Democrats, two Republicans and a chairman. The partisan members of the board are appointed by their local parties, and the chairman is appointed by the Hall County Board of Commissioners.

In April, the board had no chairman and was missing one Republican, giving Democrats Kim Copeland and Sheats control of decisions made by the board. The vote passed 2-1 along party lines.

But now, the board is fully staffed. Lutz led the push to rescind the bilingual ballot vote. He told The Times last week there wasn’t enough research into the additional ballots before the April vote.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia opposed the reversal, and its legal director, Sean Young, spoke against the decision at the Elections Board meeting Tuesday.

In a letter sent to the county last week, Young warned that reversing course on Spanish-language ballots might violate federal election law.

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 in his letter to the county, 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.”

Sheats, a Democratic member of the board who offered the April 2017 motion to adopt Spanish-language ballots, said the 2017 vote was about looking forward to the years ahead — as Hall’s latino population is growing — and showing that the county would welcome Spanish speakers.

“Our mouth can say anything, but our actions show everything,” Sheats said.