Lawsuit demands Spanish absentee ballot applications in Gwinnett

Bilingual voting stickers are displayed on a table in Gwinnett County. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO

Bilingual voting stickers are displayed on a table in Gwinnett County. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO

A civil rights group representing five Georgia organizations has filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to get Gwinnett County to mail Spanish-language absentee ballot applications to residents who aren't fluent in English.

The group, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, sent a demand letter last week to the Secretary of State's office and the Gwinnett Board of Registrations and Elections asking that the ballot applications be sent in Spanish, and that they be properly translated.

They contended that the state shouldn’t be able to send English-only applications in Gwinnett because the county is required to send Spanish-language voting materials under the federal Voting Rights Act. Citizens educated in Spanish in Puerto Rico are also eligible to receive Spanish-language ballot applications statewide, they said.

The 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 civil rights group said Census data shows nearly 14,000 citizens are of voting age and are fluent in Spanish, but have limited English proficiency.

In the suit, filed Tuesday, five local groups claim that the decision not to send absentee ballot applications in Spanish requires them to divert time and resources that would go to other priorities to educating Spanish-speaking voters about how to complete applications and how to navigate voting by mail.

"Just because we're in a pandemic doesn't mean federal law doesn't apply," said Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "We want to make sure voting rights are protected."

The other parties to the suit are the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Atlanta, New Georgia Project and Common Cause.

They have asked a federal judge to mail an accurately translated bilingual version of the absentee ballot application to county residents, particularly those who identified as Hispanic/Latino when they registered to vote or who live in Gwinnett precincts where at least 5% of voters identified as Hispanic when they registered to vote. The groups also asked that the state and the county make an accurately translated bilingual absentee ballot application available at its own URL. Now, the suit says, there is no bilingual absentee ballot application on the Secretary of State’s website and a Spanish-language version is difficult to find on the Gwinnett County website.

Additionally, the suit asks a judge to enjoin the state and the county from violating the bilingual section of the Voting Rights Act.

Gonzalez said a number of people had reached out to him upon receiving the English materials because with social distancing, “they don’t have access to normal translating resources.”

A spokesperson for the Secretary of State's office said he would not comment on the litigation. A spokesperson for Gwinnett County also declined to comment.