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Gwinnett officials: Spanish-language election services cost $700,000 in 2017
Stephen Day, right, chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Voter Registrations and Elections, and John Mangano, vice chairman of the Gwinnett board, speak during a Hall County Elections Board meeting to discuss Spanish-language ballots in Gainesville on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

Spanish-language ballots cost Gwinnett County an additional $700,000 last year in its state and local elections.

That figure and others from Gwinnett’s experience adopting bilingual ballots in 2017 were discussed in a meeting between Gwinnett and Hall County election officials on Tuesday.

Gwinnett County was forced by the federal government to adopt Spanish-language ballots at the end of 2016. The change came because the U.S. Census Bureau determined the county met federal thresholds of Spanish-speaking, voting-age residents to require bilingual ballots.

The thresholds are set by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which mandates counties offer election ballots in other languages based on several factors, including the number of residents who speak a language other than English at home.

Stephen Day, chairman of the Gwinnett Board of Voter Registrations and Elections, and Vice Chairman John Mangano spent about an hour with Hall elections officials to discuss the larger county’s work in 2017 to offer Spanish-language election services.

The Gwinnett officials, who represent a county with almost 1 million people, said on Tuesday that they weren’t surprised when the Census Bureau flipped the switch on their designation in 2016 — but they expected the bureau to include Hall at the same time.

“I was surprised you weren’t triggered, but I suspect you’ll be in 2021,” Day said.

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Craig Lutz, a member of the Hall County Elections Board, speaks during a meeting to discuss Spanish-language ballots in Gainesville on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. The chairman and vice chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Voter Registrations and Elections came together with the Hall County Elections Board to answer questions about implementing Spanish-language ballots. - photo by David Barnes
The Census Bureau’s next review for compliance with the Voting Rights Act is set for 2021. Between now and then, Hall is expected to grow by thousands of people and already has a Latino population that is relatively similar to that in Gwinnett.

The local debate of whether to willingly adopt bilingual ballots — taking a cue from the news out of Gwinnett, when the larger county was forced to adopt them — has picked up steam in the past few weeks among Republican and Democratic members of the board. In January, the board narrowly voted to rescind a 2017 vote to adopt bilingual ballots in favor of a more cautious stance.

Now, two members of the Hall County board, Republican Ken Cochran and Democrat Michelle Sanchez Jones, will study the costs of adopting bilingual ballots and report back to the county with a recommended action in January 2019.

But on Tuesday, they got a glimpse of what it could cost the county to accommodate more Spanish speakers.

Hall County staff estimated that bilingual ballots would cost the county about $150,000 during a busy presidential election year. For the 2016 presidential election, the elections office budget was $654,347.

In Gwinnett, it cost $500,000 in labor costs to get the Spanish-language alternatives rolling in about 150 precincts throughout the county, according to Day. The county spent another $200,000 on signs and other one-time costs associated with supporting Spanish speakers.

The Voting Rights Act requires that all elections materials be printed in the alternative language — that means ballots, directions to polling places, voting instructions, advertising and any other printed material.

Those materials have to be translated, edited and approved by staff, explained Day and Mangano, which takes time and money. Even so, it should be less expensive in subsequent years to offer Spanish-language ballots after the up-front costs in 2017.

“We didn’t have a choice. I mean, we’re just going to pay what it takes to do it. It’s a federal mandate to do it,” Day said.

Tom Smiley, chairman of the Hall County Elections Board, speaks during a Hall County Elections Board meeting to discuss Spanish-language ballots in Gainesville on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. The chairman and vice chairman of the Gwinnett Board of Voter Registrations and Elections came together with the Hall County Elections Board to answer questions about implementing Spanish-language ballots. - photo by David Barnes
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