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Hall County watches as Gwinnett grapples with bilingual ballots

Hall County elections officials are closely monitoring the actions of cities in Gwinnett County that are scrambling to comply with providing voting materials in Spanish to the county’s large Hispanic population that comprehends little or no English.

Gwinnett municipalities holding local elections Nov. 7 are under the gun to get instructions, directions and ballots translated in time for the start of early voting Oct. 1., said Kim Wolfe, the clerk for the city of Buford.

“All the cities are in the process of getting things translated,” Wolfe said Tuesday.

Gwinnett County and its cities are compelled to provide language assistance to Hispanic residents under Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act. The U.S. Census Bureau determined late last year that Gwinnett County must comply based on demographic data showing that more than 5 percent or 10,000 citizens of voting age are members of a single-language minority.

In April, the Hall County Board of Elections and Voter Registration voted 2-1 to voluntarily comply with Section 203 of the VRA and not wait to be forced into compliance. The vote was taken along party lines at a time when the board had three members. Two Democrats voted in favor of providing bilingual ballots, and the lone Republican voted against it.

Since that vote was taken, a second Republican was appointed to the board, and recently self-described conservative Tom Smiley, the pastor of Lakewood Baptist Church, was named chairman of the election board.

Board members Gala Sheats and Kim Copeland, both Democrats, protested the appointment of Smiley as chairman because they said he leans Republican.

Copeland said the group is trying to set up a meeting with Gwinnett County Elections Supervisor Lynn Ledford to see firsthand what Gwinnett is doing to comply with Section 203.

“We want to see what works and doesn’t work and how much money they’re spending,” Copeland told The Times.

Smiley could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials has been advocating for bilingual ballots in Gwinnett and Hall. GALEO Executive Director Jerry Gonzalez has been critical of Gwinnett’s efforts to comply with Section 203.

“Gwinnett has been working without community engagement and without community input in the  process,” Gonzalez told The Times. “We have expressed concerns about what we believe are serious issues with Gwinnett County and all municipalities in complying … Regarding costs, we are not aware of any costs the county has expended. Their processes have been not very transparent. We are very concerned about the process so far.”

Ledford said she has little information to share at this time, even though Gwinnett recently announced it had mailed out 12,000 bilingual letters to the cities of Lilburn and Snellville to inform voters of polling location changes.

Neither Ledford nor Gwinnett spokeswoman Heather Sawyer were able to say how much the mass mailing cost the county.

“We budget annually by the calendar year, and we did not know how much it would cost to comply with Section 203 going into this budget cycle,” Ledford said. “We are documenting the costs of 203 compliance the best we can, but do not have an estimated cost yet.”

In the meantime, the Hall County Board of Commissioners did not include funding for bilingual ballots in the fiscal 2018 budget, according to spokeswoman Katie Crumley.

Hall County also has put off hiring an elections director since Charlotte Sosebee departed last fall.

Crumley said the county continues to explore its options for filling the elections director position.

“We are also continuing to evaluate the current structure of the department in an effort to support the requirements and mandated responsibilities necessary in order to best serve our citizens of the county,” Crumley said.

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