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Hall may not have choice on bilingual ballots
Gwinnett was forced in 2016 to adopt Spanish-language ballots
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 The decision to provide ballots in Spanish was rescinded by a 3-2 vote.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

If Gwinnett County is any example, Hall County could soon be forced to adopt Spanish-language ballots regardless of whether administrators and elected officials support the move.

In 2016, Gwinnett County was deep in a federal lawsuit filed by voting rights organizations aiming to push the county into offering Spanish language ballots. By that time, the metro Atlanta county was pushing past 900,000 residents. More than a fifth — or about 180,000 people — were Latino, and groups like the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials were suing in federal court to force the county to adopt Spanish-language ballots.

But it turned out that the lawsuit was unnecessary. In December 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau changed its designation of Gwinnett County under Section 203 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Census Bureau found that at least 5 percent of Gwinnett’s voting-age population were Spanish-speaking Latinos and had trouble speaking and reading English. As a result, the Department of Justice required Gwinnett County to begin offering Spanish-language ballots and support at the polls.

“We didn’t force anything to happen there,” said Jerry Gonzalez, president of GALEO and a party to the lawsuit against Gwinnett. “The federal government looked at the population demographics with the most recent Census citizenship data that they had, and they said Gwinnett County meets all of those thresholds.”

Section 203 means “full compliance,” Gonzalez said. Every bit of elections material printed in English must also be printed in Spanish, from signs to ads to ballots.

Gwinnett’s adoption of Spanish-language ballots was watched by Hall County elections officials in August, a few months before the Hall County Elections Board rescinded its April 2017 vote to adopt Spanish-language ballots.

At the same time, the board voted to create a two-person committee made up of two board members, Republican Ken Cochran and Democrat Michelle Sanchez Jones, to study the costs of adopting bilingual ballots, which could cost more than $100,000 each year. 

The entire budget for Hall County’s elections department for the 2017 fiscal year, which included the 2016 presidential election, was $654,347.

The committee will report its findings to the board in January 2019 — after the upcoming state and local primaries and elections. Craig Lutz, the Republican member of the Elections Board who offered the motion to create the committee, said he didn’t want its work or findings to interfere with the upcoming elections.

In casting the tie-breaking vote in favor of rescinding the April 2017 action of the previous board, Elections Board Chairman Tom Smiley said he was making a decision on prudential grounds — noting that the board didn’t have the ability to fund Spanish-language ballots and that the decision was up to the Hall County Board of Commissioners

Commissioners didn’t fund Spanish-language ballots in their current budget, but time and demographics might take the decision out of the county’s hands.

Gwinnett’s population is far larger than Hall’s, but Hall has a larger percentage of Latino residents.

By Census Bureau estimates for 2016, Hall had 196,637 people. While that’s much less than in Gwinnett County, Latinos make up 28 percent of Hall’s population — 8 percent more than Gwinnett in 2016, when the larger county was forced to adopt Spanish-language ballots.

The percentage of residents who speak a language other than English at home tracks almost exactly with the percentage of Latinos in Hall County: 28 percent. However, that figure and the total percent of the population that’s Latino includes minors of at least 5 years of age.

Just how many of those residents are of voting age isn’t clear — one of the reasons a majority of the committee voted to hold off recommending Spanish-language ballots be adopted in the county. 

But Gonzalez and other Latino voting rights advocates argue it’s only a matter of time before the rules change for the county.

The Census Bureau reevaluates Section 203 designations every five years. With the last round in 2016, the next review will come in 2021. A full census of the county will be taken in 2020, and Gonzalez said he’s confident that Hall County will join Gwinnett in the designation.

Even back in the 2010 census, Hall County’s Latino population came in at 26 percent of the whole. That figure jumped 2 percent in six years.

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