Judge rejects request for Spanish ballot applications in Gwinnett

A federal judge has rejected a civil rights group's claim that Gwinnett County must send absentee ballot applications in Spanish.

Last month, five local organizations sued to require the county to send Spanish-language absentee ballot applications to residents who aren't fluent in English. Under the Voting Rights Act, Gwinnett is required to have voting materials in both Spanish and English because of the number of Spanish-speaking residents in the county.

It is the only county in the state that is required to provide bilingual voting material.

The lawsuit was filed by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on behalf of local organizations after Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger sent absentee ballot applications, in English, to all active voters in Georgia because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In his Friday order denying a preliminary injunction to force the Spanish mailers in Gwinnett, U.S. Judge William Ray II said he thought their request represented a “reasonable and desirable outcome” and “may very well be the best public policy.” But, he wrote, it was not the law.

In denying the request by the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Atlanta, New Georgia Project and Common Cause, Ray noted that he was a former Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge and a 30-year resident who was "intimately familiar with the diversity of Gwinnett County."

But he said the Spanish provision of the Voting Rights Act only applies to Gwinnett County — not to Raffensperger or Georgia. Because Raffensperger did not coordinate with the county, Ray wrote, the Gwinnett Board of Registrations and Elections was not the one to provide the voting materials and therefore "has no duty" to send them in Spanish.

He also said the county is sending Spanish-language absentee ballots when they are requested and voters are still able to cast their ballots in person for the June 9 primary.

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 Census data shows nearly 14,000 Gwinnett citizens are of voting age and are fluent in Spanish, but have limited English proficiency.

In an email, a representative for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said the group was reviewing Ray’s order. A spokesperson for Gwinnett County declined to comment.