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Hall County won’t be required to provide bilingual ballots for at least 5 more years
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Hall County’s election director, Lori Wurtz, recently said the county will not be required to provide Spanish language ballots for at least the next five years, following results from 2020 census data. - photo by Scott Rogers

Hall County will not be required to provide Spanish language ballots for at least the next five years, following results from the 2020 census data that were judged against federal criteria. 

Hall County elections director Lori Wurtz informed the Board of Elections and Registrations at its meeting earlier this month, saying the county would not be reevaluated to provide Spanish language ballots for five more years. 

Federal Dept. of Justice criteria states that more than 5% of a jurisdiction’s voting-age citizens must be members of a single-language minority group and “do not speak or understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process” to qualify. 

“It’s a complicated process,” Wurtz said. 

About 28% of Hall County residents are Hispanic, according to the latest census data.

The requirements were established in the 1965 Voting Rights Act with an amendment added in 1975. 

Gina Wright, executive director of the Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office, agreed it was complicated, and wrote in an email to The Times that the exact data is not publicly available. 

Jurisdictions are evaluated using data from the American Community Survey every five years, Wright wrote. 

“These tabulations are not publicly available so there is not a way for anyone to determine on their own what that would be or how close they may or may not have been to meeting this,” she wrote. 

In Georgia, only two counties currently provide multilingual ballots: DeKalb and Gwinnett. Gwinnett County was obligated to do so after a federal decision in 2017, while the DeKalb Board of Commissioners decided to provide English, Spanish and Korean ballots in 2020. Elections board chairman Tom Smiley said it’s important for the board to know whether they will be obligated to provide multilingual ballots, because it can add a significant cost to elections. The county would be responsible for translating and making all signage, advertisements, ballots and any other election materials, Smiley said.

“There’s a large budget that would accompany that, and so it’s good for us to know that we did not meet that standard for this time,” he said.

Board member Craig Lutz led an effort to establish a committee in February 2019 to look into how much this potential cost would be, but that committee, consisting of board members David Kennedy and Ken Cochran, has yet to report on a cost estimate for bilingual ballots. Lutz said he intended for the committee to start its research at the start of last year. 

Cochran and Kennedy could not be reached for comment. 

Latino activists in the community have made pushes in the past for the board to administer bilingual ballots, even if the federal government would not force the county to do so. In April 2017, the elections board voted to require bilingual ballots for county and state elections in a controversial 2-1 vote while two seats were unfilled, and a fully stocked 5-member board overturned the decision in January of 2018.

Smiley said that any decision to add Spanish language elections materials would rest with the county’s Board of Commissioners rather than the elections board, because county commissioners control the budget. 

Jerry Gonzalez of Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, who advocated for Hall County to provide Spanish language ballots in 2017, wrote in an email to The Times that his organization would continue to advocate for language access to all Latinos in Hall County who need it. 

People who need help translating ballots and election materials can still bring a translator with them to polling stations as established in the Voting Rights Act, Gonzalez wrote.

“As Hall County’s fast-growing Latino population continues to increase its presence on the voter rolls and at the ballot box, we maintain that Hall County can and should always move forward by providing meaningful Spanish language access for voters needing language access,” he wrote. “Hall County Board of Elections should take the proactive steps necessary to ensure Latino voters can freely exercise their right to vote by moving Spanish language access forward voluntarily.”

Wurtz said she had anticipated Hall County qualifying for bilingual ballots after this evaluation. 

“When we are tapped to do this, we’re ready,” she said. “We’ll dig in at that time when we’re told that we have to do it, and we’re ready to learn and grow, and I just can’t wait for that to happen. But it looks like it won’t be for at least another five years.”