Hall County’s new elections director has front-line experience in the major issue hanging over elections in the coming years: Spanish-language ballots.
Lori Wurtz started work as the new director of the Hall County Elections Office on Monday after being hired earlier this month. Wurtz is the first full-time manager of the office since Charlotte Sosebee resigned after the November 2016 general election.
Wurtz spent about a decade working with Jackson County, first in human resources and, for the past eight years, as the head of its elections office. She was drawn to election work by the poll worker training done before elections, and this year she’ll oversee the training of between 250 and 300 poll workers for the county’s 2018 elections.
Wurtz picked up some critical experience in 2017 thanks to Gwinnett County and the U.S. Census Bureau.
Bilingual ballots were a much-discussed issue in the enormous metro Atlanta county because of large populations of Latino and Asian residents, and English-only ballots offered in the million-resident county.
The issue was settled in December 2016, when the Census Bureau announced that Gwinnett County had enough Spanish speakers voting in local elections to require the county, through the Department of Justice and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, to offer ballots in Spanish.
With the county meeting the threshold, all of its municipalities were also required to offer Spanish-language ballots.
But how does that involve Jackson County?
“Jackson County is under contract to do elections for the town of Braselton,” Wurtz told The Times on Thursday, April 19. “Since that town splurges over into Gwinnett County, we had to follow that mandate by the DOJ.”
Braselton city limits cross Barrow, Gwinnett, Hall and Jackson counties, but because some of the city included Gwinnett County the entire city had to fund Spanish-language ballots. Making the issue more complicated is the fact that, unlike Hall County, Gwinnett doesn’t manage the elections of any of its municipalities.
“My work on that was with all of the city clerks that were (in the county),” Wurtz said. “They were great assets to have. I worked on one of the committees, and we did what we had to do.”
While the law doesn’t apply to candidates running for office, the elections office was required to make any piece of elections-related material that comes into contact with the voter available in both English and Spanish.
In all of Gwinnett County, that cost about $700,000 up front. It was less expensive in Jackson County, but Wurtz said it was still a pricey project for the government.
“Whatever the voters are exposed to, you have to provide it (in both languages),” Wurtz said. “It was a really lengthy process.”
And it’s a process likely coming for Hall County, Wurtz said. By percentage of the total population, Hall County’s Spanish-speaking population is about the same size of that in Gwinnett.
Gwinnett elections officials have already told the Hall County Elections Board that they were surprised Hall wasn’t required to offer bilingual ballots beginning in 2017.
“I was surprised you weren’t triggered, but I suspect you’ll be in 2021,” Stephen Day, chairman of the Gwinnett board, told the Hall County Elections Board in early February.
But on Election Day 2017, Wurtz said there was little need for the Spanish-language materials in Jackson.
“Not very much, but it will, I’m sure, grow,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter if anyone comes in and needs those services — you have to offer them. It was a lot of work, but in Jackson County, as far as the town of Braselton goes, they’re ready. They did what had to be done.”
Wurtz said on Thursday she also expects the requirement will be levied on Hall County in the coming years.
“I would think so,” she said. “I would think most of the metro counties would probably be headed in that direction, but the process that (the Census Bureau uses) to determine that is complicated.”
Hall County spokeswoman Katie Crumley said on Thursday that the Hall County Board of Commissioners is waiting on the results of a cost study being done by members of the elections board. The earliest any bilingual election materials could be funded, if required by the federal government, would be the 2020 fiscal year beginning July 2019.
Key election dates
Registration deadline: Close of business April 24
Primary: May 22
Last day to mail an absentee primary ballot: May 18
General election: Nov. 6
More info: Hall County Elections Office
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