Calls for Hall County to provide Spanish-language ballots for voters in the next election cycle have been rebuked by local officials despite threats to take the issue to court.
“(Hall County) is responsible for complying with federal law and responsible for running elections,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. “If the county refuses to work with us in coming up with a timeline that is suitable for our community and for the county, then we have no choice but to seek compliance with the potential violations of the Voting Rights Act in federal court.”
Gonzalez has also requested that Gwinnett County provide bilingual ballots, but officials there have not agreed to do so.
No county in Georgia currently offers bilingual ballots.
Gonzalez said the Voting Rights Act applies to Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens but speak Spanish as a first language.
There are an estimated 13,000 or more Puerto Ricans in Gwinnett, and about 900 in Hall.
Hall County officials, however, said they reviewed the request for bilingual ballots and the pertinent provisions of the Voting Rights Act but found that the “requisite population percentages above which bilingual ballots are required are stated in terms of the percentage of ‘voting-age citizens’ and not ‘general population.’”
Moreover, Georgia is not listed by the U.S. Census has having met the proper population threshold to require bilingual ballots.
“The accuracy of this information has been verified by the state elections director,” County Attorney Bill Blalock wrote in an email to Gonzalez obtained by The Times. “Should the Secretary of State’s Office provide further guidance as to the requirement for the provision of bilingual ballots, Hall County will certainly follow such guidance; however, there appears to be no legal requirement to provide such at this time.”
Hall County Republican Party Chairwoman Debra Pilgrim said she is pleased the county has refused to issue bilingual ballots at this time.
She said citizenship requirements mandate English-language competency and “if you’re not a citizen of the United States, you shouldn’t be voting anyway.”
Pilgrim said she believed bilingual ballots would be a slippery slope.
“Are we going to put every language on the ballot?” she asked rhetorically. “Would The Times print legal organs in Spanish?”
Hall County Democratic Party Chairwoman Sheila Nicholas, on the other hand, said she recalls seeing ballots in Spanish, Russian, Polish and Italian during her time living in Chicago.
“It was very surprising to me that, because of the large Hispanic population in our county, there were not ballots in Spanish,” she added. “(Hall Elections Director) Charlotte Sosebee and the Republicans have absolutely refused to even discuss, saying that it is not a requirement in the state.”
Indeed, the Hall County Board of Elections is divided on the issue, and will discuss it again at a meeting next week.
Gabe Shippy, one of two Democrats on the board, said bilingual ballots will help embrace Hall County’s diversity.
“This is not about accommodating one specific group of people, but rather an effort to encourage and welcome more people into the electoral process that may be hesitant to participate due to language and communication barriers,” he added. “This can be a prime opportunity for Hall County to display leadership and set an example for the rest of the state to follow. We have a very competent, experienced staff that is more than capable of implementing these changes.”
Tommy Sandoval, one of two Republicans on the board, took to social media in recent days to counter Shippy.
Sandoval’s father is from Spain and “would roll over in his grave if I allowed our ballot to be bilingual,” he wrote. “I will fight you and anyone else as long as I sit on the elections board. Be clear this is not an anti-Spanish or anti-Hispanic stand.”
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, also joined the debate this week with a statement opposing the availability of multilingual ballots in both in Gwinnett and Hall counties.
“Requirements such as those proposed would unnecessarily burden counties that are already facing budget constraints,” Collins said. “There is no reason to create a new burden on counties with an initiative that will have little impact for its citizens. Unreasonable demands by activist groups do not establish justification to change policies, especially when American citizens already have the right to bring translators with them to polling places.”
Collins said he is co-sponsoring the English Language Unity Act, which would establish English as the official language of the United States.
“This bill is a critical step in recognizing that our language unites us as a country, and would help prevent money from being wasted on duplicative publication of materials in multiple languages, even if those materials are rarely used,” he said.
But for local Hispanics and Latinos, the prospect of bilingual ballots is enticing and motivating.
“Obviously, it would help,” Gainesville resident Patricia Iniguez said. “If (immigrants) don’t understand, they wouldn’t want to vote.”
And resident Gustavo Godinez said having bilingual ballots could help increase voter turnout.
“More people would come just since it would be the first time,” he said.