Groups ask Gwinnett, Hall counties to provide Spanish ballots

Latino rights groups have asked two metro Atlanta counties to provide Spanish-language ballots – a move that could speed up a significant shift in Georgia politics.

No county in Georgia offers ballots or voting materials in a language other than English. But the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) and New York-based LatinoJustice have asked Gwinnett and Hall counties to provide Spanish ballots, voter guides, poll workers and website information, citing a provision of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The request comes as Latinos and other minorities are gradually gaining political traction in Georgia – a trend some observers say could eventually break Republicans’ generation-long grip on state politics. Providing Spanish-language ballots in a presidential election year – when minority turnout often swells – could give Democrats a chance in places like Gwinnett, a Republican stronghold where 20 percent of the population is Hispanic.

“Looking not terribly far down the road, Gwinnett is going to be a county where they have more Democratic than Republican votes,” said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. “A larger Hispanic voting population could expedite that.”

The local initiative is similar to other efforts across the country in recent years to expand Latino voting rights using a provision of the Voting Rights Act aimed at protecting ballot access for Puerto Ricans.

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Jerry Gonzalez, GALEO’s executive director, said providing Spanish-language ballots would make it easier for many people to vote.

“It’s about enforcing the Voting Rights Act and ensuring voters – U.S. citizens – have access to voting, to the full extent that the Voting Rights Act provides,” Gonzalez said.

Others say ballots should remain in English, and that immigrants should learn the language if they want to vote.

“Imagine voting for candidates when you have never really heard them speak (in your language),” said David Hancock, co-chairman of the United Tea Party of Georgia. “They don’t know what the candidate’s saying. They don’t know what the candidate’s promising. They can’t ask them questions.”

In letters to Gwinnett and Hall officials, the Latino groups say the counties are required to provide bilingual ballots because of a provision of the Voting Rights Act covering Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens but may not use English as their primary language. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, there are about 85,000 people of Puerto Rican descent in Georgia, including more than 13,000 in Gwinnett and 900 in Hall. There is no specific minimum number of Puerto Ricans who must be present to trigger the provision, according to Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, an attorney for the civil rights group Advancement Project.

But making bilingual language ballots available could benefit many more people. Gwinnett is home to an estimated 171,000 Latinos, or one out of every five residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than a quarter of Hall residents are Latino.

At a ceremony in Tucker this week, Gwinnett resident Juliana Mercedes Villa became an American citizen and registered to vote. She said she came to the United States from the Dominican Republic for “more opportunity.” Though she speaks English haltingly, she said a Spanish ballot would be helpful.

Culliton-Gonzalez likened English-only ballots to literacy tests, which were outlawed by the Voting Rights Act. She cited seven cases nationwide since 2008 where the U.S. Justice Department or private groups have successfully used the same voting rights provision to force governments to provide bilingual ballot access.

“Every single American should have a right to vote,” she said. “It means no literacy tests and no poll taxes.”

Others say learning English is an important part of becoming an American. The Tea Party’s Hancock said a common language ensures people understand the issues and the candidates the same way, without the ambiguity that can come with translation.

“If they want a ballot in Spanish, they can stay in Puerto Rico,” Hancock said. “But if they’re going to come up here to Montana or Georgia, you should learn to speak English.”

In a written response to the Latino groups, Hall County attorney William Blalock said the county is not required to provide bilingual materials. County officials declined further comment. Gwinnett officials say they’re waiting on guidance from the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.

“Whatever the state tells us we’ll need to do is what we’ll do,” said Alice O’Lenick, chair of the Gwinnett County Board of Registrations and Elections.

GALEO’s Gonzalez said the group may file a lawsuit if the counties refuse. Ultimately, another provision of the Voting Rights Act may not give them a choice.

Section 203 of the Act requires jurisdictions to provide bilingual ballot access if more than 5 percent or 10,000 citizens of voting age are members of a single language minority and have difficulty speaking English. Currently, 248 jurisdictions across the country must provide bilingual access under that provision.

None of them is in Georgia, but the Census Bureau may release a new list this year. Because of their high concentration of Latinos, Gonzalez said Gwinnett and Hall could be on the new list.

“It’s not a matter of if the counties will have to provide (bilingual access),” he said. “It’s a matter of when.”

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