We’ve all experienced this moment: You’re in the voting booth, poring over your choices. After selecting your candidates, you scroll to the bottom of the ballot, where you’re greeted by a list of constitutional amendments and referendums, some quite lengthy.
With amendments in particular, you read over each two or three times to make sure you can figure out exactly what you’re voting for. The heavily parsed legal language is filled with double negatives and strung together by commas into one jawbreaker sentence that often leaves you puzzled.
Now put yourself in that same spot and imagine you are still learning English and not yet comfortable with the nuances of the language. Can you figure out what you’re voting for?
This is among the reasons many states and counties are adding bilingual ballots as an option for voters. Hall County’s election board voted 2-1 to make that move last week, following Gwinnett County’s recent decision to do so.
The board voted 2-1, Democrats Kim Copeland and Gala Sheats in favor and Republican Ken Cochran opposed. Newly appointed GOP member Craig Lutz had not been sworn in when the vote was held; the fifth spot on the board goes to the elections supervisor, a job currently vacant since Charlotte Sosebee left last fall. It’s still uncertain whether the move needs approval from the Board of Commissioners.
The move is a reaction to the growing number and influence of Latino voters in Hall. Though Latinos are just 3 percent of Georgia voters, more than 7,000, 7 percent of those registered, live in Hall. That’s the state’s fifth highest total, up 35 percent since 2008. More than 1,000 registered during last year’s high-profile presidential election season. As first generation immigrants become more assimilated and their kids go to school and grow up here, that number will continue to grow.
The reasons for this are based on two driving forces: what’s right and what’s legally pragmatic.
First the inevitable: The federal Voting Rights Act stipulates that a jurisdiction must provide bilingual ballots when more than 5 percent or 10,000 citizens of voting age are of a single language minority other than English. Gwinnett made its move based on its 170,000 Latino residents. Hall has more than 54,000 total, both noncitizens and citizens, some 28 percent of the population.
It likely would have been just a matter of time before the county was required to provide bilingual ballots, so why not get ahead of it and make it happen now?
“Hopefully, we can save the taxpayers money from unnecessary lawsuits, and allowing citizens greater access to voting is always a good thing,” Copeland said.
Yet Lutz said the move might be too costly. The former commissioner called the move “fiscally irresponsible” and expressed concern it could put a burden on taxpayers. That’s worth asking for any government initiative, and the exact cost of creating bilingual ballots is a bit of a wild card. That needs to be determined and shared with the public.
Even so, we then ask: Is spending money to expand ballot access, however much it costs, still worth doing? In this case, the answer is yes.
There are some responsibilities government must take on despite the cost, including keeping streets safe and putting out fires. Fostering democracy is on that list. Voting is the most fundamental of American rights, and any move that improves that process is a vital service.
As it is, motivating more eligible citizens to register and vote is a task unto itself. While presidential elections can draw big turnouts, such as last year’s 78 percent showing in Hall, most off-year elections draw limited interest. That has led Georgia and other states to streamline the process any way possible, adding early and Saturday voting, absentee ballots and other conveniences.
And before some counter with “why don’t they speak English if they want to live here?” remember these are American citizens, including those from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Forget the bogus claim of massive voter fraud by illegal immigrants, who in reality have no interest in exposing themselves to possible deportation by trying to cast ballots, particularly in the current political climate.
Yes, those who go through the naturalization process must learn a fair amount of English to pass the required exams on American history and civics. But there’s a difference between being proficient in a language and being fluent. As mentioned before, the ballot questions are not written to be easily understood by many who have lived here their whole lives, much less someone still learning the language.
It is indeed in the best interests of all Americans to learn English to better assimilate into the culture, but that can take time. English is the common language of the United States, not an “official” one, and does not require its citizens to speak and use it exclusively.
Though many native-born Americans may take the right to vote for granted, naturalized citizens in particular have a special appreciation for free elections, many having emigrated from nations where that right is denied or limited. Those who make the effort to become citizens dearly want to participate in our democratic process, and should be welcomed with open arms.
Thus, if that means we spend a few more tax dollars to provide ballots in a language that puts them at ease, then it is money well spent.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.