Early voters wait outside the Gwinnett County Board of Voter Registration and Elections Office in Lawrenceville in October. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Inside Gwinnett’s quest to find 350 Spanish-speaking poll workers

Gwinnett County’s elections office is holding its first-ever “hiring events” for poll workers this week and, to be honest, Lynn Ledford isn’t quite sure what to expect.

Ledford, Gwinnett’s elections director, knows she needs north of 2,000 poll workers before (and after) May’s primaries — and that, thanks to a federal mandate, about 350 of them should be fluent in both English and Spanish.

It’s that second part that’s responsible for inspiring this week’s hiring events. And Ledford’s uncertainty.

“I want to be optimistic,” she said this week, before adding: “I have no idea what it’s going to be like.”

Gwinnett is home to an estimated 171,000 Latinos and, according to one recent study, had more than 44,000 registered Latino voters during 2016’s presidential election. It is the first and only community in Georgia, and one of only a handful in the South outside of Florida or Texas, to receive the U.S. Census Bureau designation mandating it offer voter materials and assistance in Spanish. Other Georgia counties, like Hall, could follow suit soon.

Gwinnett officially received the designation — which is tied to the federal Voting Rights Act and applied to jurisdictions where more than 5 percent of the voting age population are members of one language minority and have difficulty speaking English — in Dec. 2016. But the upcoming election season, which among others includes a gubernatorial race and two races for county commission seats, will bring Gwinnett’s first countywide general elections since.

In terms of bilingual poll workers, the federal guidelines Gwinnett must now follow aren’t overly specific and different jurisdictions have handled the demands different ways. Ledford, though, said she wants to attempt to hire two Spanish speakers for each of its 156 voting precincts, as well as about two dozen more to staff the eight locations the county opens during early voting.

The stated goal of 350 would cover all that and then some. Before Wednesday night’s event, only about three dozen bilingual folks had been approved.

There have been detractors of Gwinnett’s other efforts toward complying with its federal mandate, and finding enough qualified and willing poll workers isn’t the only potential speed bump the county will face.

But it may be the biggest one.

‘Our greatest challenge’

Neil Albrecht is the executive director of the election commission for the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Milwaukee, which currently has about 600,000 residents, roughly 18 percent of which are Hispanic, was first mandated to offer Spanish-language assistance to voters following the 2010 census.

Albrecht said the city’s 2012 general election, it’s first offering such assistance, went “OK” but was hardly free of issues. Most of them — Spanish-language signage not being posted as prominently as English signs, for instance — were simple enough to address, Albrecht said, but other potential complications have lingered.

They include the battle Gwinnett is just beginning.

“Certainly recruiting the bilingual election workers was and continues to be our greatest challenge,” Albrecht told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week.

Ditto for Polk County, Florida, a community of about 650,000 just east of Tampa.

Rey Martinez was elected mayor of Loganville, he is the first latino in Gwinnett county

Lori Edwards, supervisor of elections for Polk County, said her county has been covered by the Census Bureau’s mandate since 2011. She said finding bilingual workers is “the ongoing effort that takes the most attention.”

Two of the biggest things she’s learned over the years are to make a concerted effort to hold community outreach regarding not just working the polls but voting in general, and to have as many bilingual full-time staff members as possible to help.

Gwinnett’s commission approved last month a county budget that includes money for four new elections office positions geared directly toward helping comply with bilingual voting requirements.

“It forced us to learn so much more beyond the Spanish language,” Edwards said. ” … To do this job right you have to learn about some of the cultures associated for people who are speaking Spanish.”

‘Change is a process’

The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials has been a vocal critic of Gwinnett’s efforts to comply with its new mandate.

Last July, as a handful of Gwinnett cities prepared to host their first elections under the mandate, GALEO and a New York-based organization called LatinoJustice sent letters to the county and those municipalities. The letters argued that not enough was being done to provide voter information in Spanish on government websites and threatened litigation.

The organizations sent a second letter to Gwinnett County in October, saying it still wasn’t doing enough to provide “clear, complete and accurate” voting materials in Spanish.

GALEO’s executive director, Jerry Gonzalez, said his organization is “actively recruiting [bilingual] folks” that may be interested in serving as poll workers in Gwinnett. But he’s still not sold the county is doing enough.

“We’ve been disappointed with how Gwinnett County has progressed along,” Gonzalez said this week. Asked for specifics, he referenced his agency’s previous letters.

Ledford, Gwinnett’s elections director, admits that there have been things that took time to figure out — the formatting for poll tapes, the printed out “receipts” of each voting machine’s results, in two languages, for instance. She also knows that the work is far from done and, again, isn’t sure what to expect in the quest for 350 Spanish-speaking poll workers.

But Ledford is optimistic, too. She thinks the county is “doing very well” in its overall compliance efforts.

“I think we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress,” she said. “Do we still have some to go? Absolutely. Because change is a process, it’s not an event. The more we do it, the better at it we’ll get.”

GWINNETT POLL OFFICIAL HIRING EVENTS

Wednesday: 4 to 7 p.m. at OneStop Norcross, 5030 Georgia Belle Court, Norcross

Saturday: 9 a.m. to noon at OneStop Centerville, 3025 Bethany Church Road, Snellville

Applicants must be U.S. citizens, Gwinnett County residents and at least 16 years old, and must bring documents to verify their identity and legal authorization to work in the United States.

Applications can also be submitted on gwinnettcountyjobs.com before the events.

MYAJC.COM: REAL JOURNALISM. REAL LOCAL IMPACT.

The AJC's Tyler Estep keeps you updated on the latest happenings in Gwinnett County government and politics. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

Never miss a minute of what's happening in Gwinnett politics. Subscribe to myAJC.com.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Related Stories

X