Groups seek increase in language access to Georgia redistricting process

The Georgia State Capitol as viewed from the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Caption
The Georgia State Capitol as viewed from the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

About 14% of Georgia’s 10.7 million residents are estimated to speak a language other than English at home, and some organizations have questioned why the General Assembly is conducting town hall meetings on the contentious process of drawing new political districts only in English.

By doing so, critics say the state could be excluding nearly 1.5 million Georgians from the process that determines everything from who their state and congressional elected officials will be to how resources for public accommodations are allocated, according to 2019 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“There is so much about the process that is not designed to include everybody’s voices, and to not have any information available in any other language, it’s just another aspect of that,” said Djemanesh Aneteneh, a redistricting coordinator with Fair Count, a nonprofit that Democrat Stacey Abrams founded after losing the 2018 governor’s race. “It’s excluding lots of people from this process of choosing how they want their communities to be seen and represented.”

One speaker at a redistricting town hall meeting Wednesday in Dalton also noted that there was no sign language interpreter for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The public forum, hosted by the General Assembly’s Joint Reapportionment Committee, was one of 11 planned meetings being held across the state this summer before map-making gets underway this fall. Then the Republican-led Legislature will conduct the once-in-a-decade process of drawing district lines.

Georgians who can’t attend the town hall meetings in person can submit written testimony on the General Assembly website at www.legis.ga.gov/news/senate/submit-written-testimony-to-senate-and-house-redistricting-committees.

State Rep. Bonnie Rich and state Sen. John Kennedy, both Republicans who serve as co-chairs on the joint redistricting committee, did not respond to requests for comment. No committee members responded to the questions on language access made during the town hall meeting.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan also did not respond to a request for comment.

Kaleb McMichen, spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, said the committee is “using the same procedures as the other standing committees of the Georgia House of Representatives.” Legislative committees don’t offer meetings in languages other than English.

Aneteneh was one of two representatives from Fair Count who spoke at the hearing in Dalton about the lack of information available to Spanish-speaking Georgians. Immediately after she gave her testimony, Marijke Kylstra translated Aneteneh’s comments into Spanish.

“I’ll be repeating Fair Count’s comments in Spanish because we feel everybody should be a part of this process,” Kylstra said before reading her testimony.

According to 2019 Census Bureau estimates, about 46% of Dalton residents and 10% of Georgians identify as Hispanic or Latino. Ten percent of Georgians identify as “foreign born.”

Elton Garcia-Castillo, a community organizer with the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, asked members of the joint committee how they could hold a hearing in Dalton but not provide a translator on site or offer information in languages other than English.

He gave a portion of his comments at the hearing in Spanish that translated to: “We deserve to be part of the process. Don’t just draw maps so you can draw in your votes. Show us that we can confide in you.

“If you were not able to understand what I just said, this is the reason why we need language access, because my community heard me, and now you know how excluded they feel.”

Karuna Ramachandran, director of statewide partnerships with Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said she is hopeful that the committee will be more inclusive of those Georgians who are not fully proficient English speakers as the redistricting process continues.

“Language access is doable,” she said. “It is not an insurmountable hurdle. It just takes that willingness to want to hear from diverse Georgians. If you truly want it, you can make language access happen.”

Remaining public meetings on redistricting:

  • July 6 — Athens, Athens Technical College in the F Building Auditorium
  • July 7 — Augusta, Savannah Rapids Pavilion
  • July 26 — Brunswick
  • July 27 — Albany
  • July 28 — Columbus
  • July 29 — Macon
  • July 30 — Virtual only