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Editorial: Elections Board leaves Hall in a bilingual limbo
Panel punts on Spanish ballots for now, but is only delaying what is inevitable and right
Sofia Sauseda, 6, looks up at her mother, Maria Palacios, policy analyst and leadership program coordinator with the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, during a Hall County Elections Board meeting discussing rescinding a 2017 vote to adopt bilingual ballots for county and state elections. The decision to provide ballots in Spanish was rescinded by a 3-2 vote. - photo by David Barnes

Last week, the Hall County Elections Board voted to table, for now, the move to create Spanish-language ballots for elections.

The decision touched off predictable responses — one side believing  governments should meet the needs of a growing population of voters whose primary language is Spanish, the other believing all citizens should learn the country’s dominant language and governments shouldn’t cater to a voting minority.

The election board also is divided on the issue. Its two Republican members voted to reverse last year’s decision for bilingual ballots; the two Democrats voted against doing so. The chairman’s vote broke the tie. 

The initial move came last April in a 2-1 vote when the board was down a GOP member and a chairman, formerly the elections director, a position now vacant.

Instead, the board last week chose to commission a cost analysis of such a move, to be finished by 2019, too late to be in place for fall elections. Yet offering ballots in Spanish may be unavoidable unless there are changes in federal law.

We argued in favor of such ballots last spring, believing the growing number of Latino voters in Hall deserve a voice in the election process, and that the act of voting is too sacred to skimp on what likely will be a minimal expense relative to the cost of county government.

Conducting a cost analysis isn’t a bad idea, though pushing it all the way to next year seems a ridiculous bit of procrastination just to avoid this year’s election. If Latinos voted mostly for GOP candidates, that vote probably would have been reversed. Either way, if it’s the right thing to do, cost shouldn’t be the deciding factor; if it’s not, waiting for cost figures to provide an excuse for abandoning the idea is cowardly.

Setting all emotions aside, let’s look at the logistics here to get a complete picture.

The rules: The federal Voting Rights Act requires a voting jurisdiction to offer bilingual ballots when more than 5 percent or 10,000 citizens of voting age belong to a demographic group whose dominant language is not English. 

Hall has more than 54,000 Latino residents, about 28 percent of the population. According to the Hall County Elections Office, the number of active registered voters in Hall County identified as Hispanic in 2017 was 7,381, up nearly 1,000 from 6,384 last year. Out of 104,447 voters overall, that’s about 7 percent. Yet elections officials and the Secretary of State’s office said Hall has yet to cross the Voting Rights threshold in the voter-eligible population.

To satisfy the federal mandate, Gwinnett County gave in to the inevitable and added bilingual ballots based on its 170,000 Latino residents. Hall may be next in line.

Who is affected? Only American citizens, either native born or naturalized, are eligible to vote. For foreign-born residents to pass citizenship tests, some degree of English proficiency is necessary. Those age 50 or older who have lived in the U.S. for at least 20 years are exempt from the English exam.

Yet being proficient in a language and fluent aren’t the same. Some ballot questions and amendments, in particular, are difficult to understand even to lifelong English speakers, and could confuse those learning the nuances of the language.

A Pew Research Center study study in 2013 showed about 6 in 10 U.S. adult Hispanics speak English or are bilingual, leaving nearly 40 percent who speak mostly Spanish. But even bilingual voters may struggle to sort out the convoluted language included on some ballots.

Also affected are Puerto Rico natives, American citizens who speak mostly Spanish. Though most Latinos in Hall are from Mexico, the ACLU claims some 1,100 Puerto Ricans live in Hall in its letter to the elections board. More than 13,000 Puerto Ricans lived in Gwinnett in 2014, the largest concentration of some 90,000 in Georgia, and more may migrate here after last year’s hurricane devastated the island.

What’s next? Elections Board Chairman Tom Smiley voted against bilingual ballots based on his belief the board cannot authorize county commissioners to spend the money such a move would cost. Yet the board felt it does have the authority to create a panel to study the matter. 

Who will serve on it and how will they be chosen? Will Hispanics be represented? Will political party affiliations be considered, as on the board itself, and will they influence its conclusion? How will the panel be managed? What specific information will it seek? The details are uncertain, yet important in figuring how the study will proceed and how its findings will be applied.

What are the repercussions? When Hall County is deemed to have enough eligible Latino voters to trigger the Voting Rights Act requirement, federal officials can force its hand through legal action. Other groups are lining up to pressure such a move, including the American Civil Liberties Union, whose representative attended the board hearing, and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

In the end, printing bilingual ballots may be less costly than taking on lawsuits. Lawyers are expensive.

But even that shouldn’t be the deciding factor. Public officials should never do something they think is wrong, nor refuse to do what is right, over possible litigation.

The real question is this: Should the large population of Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens living in our community be denied access to the political process because of language barriers?

It’s easy to say they should assimilate by learning English, but there is no official national language everyone is required to speak. And those who demonstrate sufficient knowledge of English to pass a citizenship test may still not be literate enough in the language to understand complicated ballot questions.

There is a legitimate issue worthy of debate as to how far governments should go to provide materials in other languages. At what point do minority populations become large enough to warrant bilingual consideration? But that’s a different debate.

If the United States had an official language all citizens were required to learn, there would be no need for bilingual election materials. But as it is, citizens are free to speak whatever language they choose, and many are not fluent in English. 

Our nation is best served when its citizens are encouraged to participate in elections to make sure their views are represented and their voices heard. The best way to encourage everyone to participate is to provide an opportunity to do so in a language they can best understand.

Waiting until a year from now for a cost analysis for bilingual ballots is not going to change those facts.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. 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.

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