Sergio Botello immigrated to Hall County, Georgia, from Mexico almost 30 years ago and recently became a citizen. His English is limited, and so when he was finally able to register to vote, he feared making unintentional mistakes that might attract the attention of county voting officials. He could not find sample ballots in Spanish, and he also lacked information about the issues and the candidates in his native language. But a few years ago, Botello moved to Gwinnett County, about 30 minutes northeast of Atlanta and the only county in the state currently required to provide voting materials in Spanish under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Yet his voting experience did not improve: There were very few Latino poll workers, and seeking out translators continued to be a hassle, so he stopped voting altogether.
Section 203 requires states to offer language assistance during elections if an area meets a certain threshold of limited-English-proficient individuals (more than 5 percent or more than 10,000 citizens of voting age) who wouldnt otherwise be able to participate in the electoral process. But this provision isnt enough to ensure that all registered voters can participate in elections. The few jurisdictions like Gwinnett County that do fall under Section 203 often fail to help voters with limited English proficiency, raising fears that the infringements on the franchise may spread, especially as Georgia state lawmakers move to make voting more difficult for voters of color.
Now, Gwinnett County faces legal scrutiny. Several voting rights advocacy groups filed a lawsuit in federal court last year to compel state and county election officials to provide voting materials in Spanish. When Georgia moved to voting by mail in 2020 due to the pandemic, state election officials published a plan that included how and where to get an absentee ballot and how many stamps were required to mail the ballot. Gwinnett Countywhere federal law requires all English-language materials to be available in Spanishonly provided the information in English, sparking the lawsuit. The case is pending after oral arguments were heard in late September.
The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) is one of several plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit. The groups CEO, Jerry Gonzalez, a co-author of its study The Georgia Latino Electorate Grows in Power, says language access is a big issue for new voters and recently naturalized citizens trying to get involved in the electoral process. The organization creates voting materials in Spanish, provides in-person translation in heavily Latino districts and precincts, and sends out volunteers to knock on doors to offer assistance. But he says local and state governments should be doing this work proactively to ensure that constituents feel comfortable voting.
Georgia voting rights advocates are closely monitoring other counties with large numbers of language minority voters that may soon be required to provide materials in other languagesand Hall County may be one of those places.
The Latino community is fueling this nations growth, says Gonzalez, and with that, local governments deserve to ensure that theyre addressing the needs of their changing demographics, and part of that has to do with ensuring language access is a part of that outreach.
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Georgia voting rights advocates are closely monitoring other counties with large numbers of language minority voters that may soon be required to provide materials in other languagesand Hall County may be one of those places. Located one hour north of Atlanta, the county has 18,046 registered Latino voters, the fifth-highest in Georgia and a more than 70 percent increase since 2016, according to a recent study on the states Latino voters. In the regions hub, Gainesville, a majority-minority city and self-proclaimed Poultry Capital of the World, Latinos make up nearly 30 percent of the 42,296 residents. Many of them work in the poultry plants.
The heavily white and Republican county came close to expanding language access in 2017. At the time, the Democratic majority on the Board of Elections was able to pass a measure that would make bilingual ballots available. But a year later, Republican members voted to overturn that measure. The five members of the Gainesville City Council represent individual wards, but they are elected in a citywide vote by all registered voters, which makes it harder for the Latino and Black communities to select candidates who could improve language access and encourage voter participation. Multiple Latino candidates have run and lost in past local elections, raising concerns about possible VRA violations.
Bilingual ballots should not be controversial. There are more than 260 counties across the country that offer bilingual election information even though they are not required to under Section 203. Full access to the franchise for Spanish-speaking voters with limited English skills means recruiting Latino poll workers, providing bilingual ballots, and identifying Spanish-speaking canvassers and translators to help at the polls. Communities in Pennsylvania like Lehigh County have partnered with nearby universities to establish volunteer translation programs run by Spanish-speaking students, while cities like Philadelphia that have already been legally mandated to expand language access can serve as models.
Instead of perpetuating confusion and xenophobia, implementing these types of features would institutionalize linguistic inclusion in Georgias democratic processes. Just because theyre U.S. citizens doesnt mean that they have to speak English, GALEOs Gonzalez says. They should have the right to be able to cast their vote and not have to rely on a translator.
However, enforcement and linguistic challenges remain even if more counties in Georgia eventually fall under the VRAs language minority provisions: After GALEO contacted Gwinnett County officials multiple times, they added Google Translate to their website. The translation system produced numerous errors, but voters who needed information in Spanish had to navigate a page in English to get to that page.
As the 2022 midterms approach, shifting demographics continue to make Georgia highly competitivean environment that led to a narrow Democratic victory in the 2020 presidential contest after two decades of Republican wins in the state: Joe Biden won the presidency by only 0.2 percent of the vote. But there are new hurdles ahead. Earlier this year, Georgias Republican legislature passed nearly 100 pages of new voting restrictions, including additional identification requirements for absentee ballots and fewer drop boxes, that will compound the challenges facing Latino voters.
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