In Gwinnett, Latino groups threaten more voting rights litigation

2:47 p.m Wednesday, July 26, 2017 Local
Gwinnett County residents cast their votes on Nov. 8, 2016, at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in Lawrenceville. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM File Photo

Two Latino advocacy groups sent letters last week to Gwinnett County and several cities therein, alleging varying levels of noncompliance with a new mandate to provide Spanish-language voting materials to their constituents — and threatening litigation if they don’t change things quickly.

Leaders from the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and New York-based LatinoJustice believe the county and multiple cities are not yet fully in line with the requirements of a U.S. Census Bureau designation handed down in December. They cited government websites that provided plenty of election information in English but little or no such information in Spanish.

But responses this week from the called-out municipalities, most of which will hold elections this fall, ranged from “we’re working on it” to “actually, we’re already up to snuff.”

Lawrenceville City Manager Chuck Warbington called the undertaking an “unfunded mandate,” but said Gwinnett’s county seat is in the process of translating necessary materials and “will be updating the election pages to reflect bilingual information within the week.”

Braselton Town Manager Jennifer Scott, meanwhile, said her city’s website has been in English and Spanish “for some time.”

“Not sure where they looked,” she wrote in an email.

Gwinnett’s new Census Bureau designation, which falls under Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act, requires jurisdictions to provide bilingual ballot access if more than 5 percent or 10,000 citizens of voting age are members of a single language minority and have difficulty speaking English. Providing “ballot access” involves offering everything from online election information to voter registration forms.

Gwinnett — the only Georgia county included on the designation list released last year — is home to an estimated 171,000 Latinos, according to the latest census estimates. A recent study released by GALEO estimated that Gwinnett County had more than 44,000 registered Latino voters last November, a number that accounted for 18 percent of Georgia’s total Latino electorate.

In a press release about his organization’s letters, GALEO executive director Jerry Gonzalez said he was worried specifically about the Gwinnett cities of Auburn, Berkeley Lake, Braselton, Loganville and Lilburn complying with the new mandates.

“As recently as [July 18], their websites, which contain valuable information on upcoming municipal elections this year, were in English only and they were failing to provide the same information online in Spanish,” Gonzalez wrote. “Some municipalities fail to even offer voter registration forms in Spanish.”

Officials from four of the cities said this week they’d either already updated websites and other materials to include Spanish, or were working hard to do so. Representatives from Berkeley Lake did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“While we received word of their concerns last week,” Loganville spokesman Robbie Schwartz said, “the city of Loganville has been working since March with the Gwinnett Municipal Association and the other cities to address this matter.”

GALEO and LatinoJustice also said Gwinnett County and several other cities are relying on automated translation tools to offer online election information in Spanish. Gonzalez said those tools are not always accurate and can “cause confusion.”

Gwinnett spokeswoman Heather Sawyer said the county, which currently does not have an election planned until 2018, has been working with the U.S. Justice Department and Georgia Secretary of State’s Office to develop “a comprehensive bilingual voter registration and elections program that is both reasonable and effective.”

The county’s online election site currently offers PDF voter registration forms in Spanish and a Bing translation tool.

In their press release, GALEO and LatinoJustice urged county and municipal leaders to meet with them to ensure complete compliance and to “avoid costly voting rights litigation.”

The groups could, in theory, sue local governments to try and enforce compliance. The U.S Department of Justice has the authority to do the same.

GALEO has done battle with Gwinnett County over Spanish-language voting materials and other matters for years. It and the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP are already embroiled in a federal lawsuit against the county that claims the county’s commission and school board districts are drawn to thwart the influence of minority voters.

Gwinnett is a minority-majority county but has never had a non-white candidate elected to the school board or county commission.

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