Civil rights group: Gwinnett must send ballot applications in Spanish

A civil rights group has accused Gwinnett County leaders of failing to follow federal law by not sending Spanish-language absentee ballot applications to county residents.

Since late 2016, Gwinnett County has been required to offer Spanish-language ballots and other assistance as a provision of the federal Voting Rights Act. In a letter sent last week to the Secretary of State and members of the Gwinnett Board of Registrations and Elections, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said Gwinnett violated that requirement when only English-language ballot applications went out.

“This is not a new thing, it’s not something that just happened,” said Julie Houk, managing counsel for election protection for the group’s voting rights project. “They’re fully aware of their obligations.”

But an attorney for the county elections board wrote in response that the county was under no obligation to mail Spanish-language versions because the Secretary of State's office sent the applications.

State leaders decided late last month to send absentee ballot applications to all active voters as a way of encouraging people to vote by mail in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Two primaries, originally scheduled for March 24 and May 19, have been consolidated and moved to June 9.

Bryan Tyson, an attorney for the county elections board, said he could not comment on his April 8 letter, which was an “initial response.” He confirmed that there has not yet been any other response sent.

Joe Sorenson, a county spokesperson, said he would not comment on the “pending legal matter.”

The federal Voting Rights Act requires bilingual ballot access when more than 5% or 10,000 citizens of voting age are members of a single language minority and have difficulty speaking English. In Gwinnett, 21% of the total population is Hispanic, according to Census data — nearly 200,000 people.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said nearly 14,000 citizens are of voting age and are fluent in Spanish, but have limited English proficiency.

Houk said that creates an obligation for the county to make absentee ballot applications more accessible.

In addition to asking for them to be mailed, the group has requested the Spanish-language application be more prominently displayed on the county’s website and that the ballot application form be translated accurately.

Additionally, she said the state has an obligation to provide Spanish-language ballot applications for more than 50,000 Georgians who were educated in Spanish in Puerto Rico, including more than 6,000 in Gwinnett.

In her letter, Houk said Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s actions to distribute more absentee ballots were “commendable,” but he neglected to consider the Gwinnett requirement. She added that on the Gwinnett County website, a link to an English version of the form is prominently displayed, but a Spanish version is more difficult to find.

She also questioned the translation, which implies requests can be made on one form for multiple elections, though that isn’t the case for all voters. Other translations are awkward, she said, and could be clearer.

All together, Houk wrote, the effect is that Gwinnett denies some residents equal access to voting.

She added that the county had conducted its own mailings in English and Spanish last year, when inactive voters were being purged by the state.

“I don’t see how this intervention is any different from that one,” she said. “This expands access, that takes voters off the voter file.”

In his response, Tyson said the elections board would review the placement of the Spanish-language ballot application on the website and the awkward translations. But he said the state — not Gwinnett — sent the materials and so there is no requirement for the county to send the application in Spanish.

County election employees “work tirelessly” to ensure that all voters have access, he wrote.

“To accuse the County of obstructing the constitutional rights of any voter is offensive and wrong,” Tyson wrote.