Georgia county rejects call for ballots in Spanish; sets up possible court battle

Despite pleas from two Latino rights groups, a Georgia county has rejected a request to provide Spanish-language ballots for the upcoming November elections.

Officials in Gwinnett County voted 4-1 against the motion and defended the move by saying they do not have enough information to determine whether the county should provide bilingual ballots and voting materials.

The two groups who filed the request – the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) and the New York-based LatinoJustice – cited a provision of the federal Voting Rights Act that requires local governments to make Spanish-language ballots available to people from Puerto Rico who have difficulty reading English. This law was designed to help Puerto Ricans – who are American citizens – who move to mainland of the U.S.

"Unfortunately Gwinnett County chose to continue to be out of compliance with the Voting Rights Act and decided that the Puerto Rican community's voting rights should not be protected," GALEO executive director Jerry Gonzalez told Fox News Latino in an email.  "We tried to work with the county to come up with an implementation plan to avoid litigation, but the county has refused to move forward in an amicable manner."

Gwinnett Board of Registrations and Elections chair Alice O'Lenick told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the board would wait to hear from the state or federal government – or a court – before taking up the issue again.

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This could happen sooner rather than later, thanks in large part to the sizable Latino population in the county.

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that there are an estimated 171,000 Latinos in Gwinnett County – about one out of every five residents.

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions to provide bilingual ballots if they include more than five percent of the population or 10,000 citizens of a single language minority who are eligible to vote and have difficulty speaking English.

A spokesperson for the county told Fox News Latino that while the language of the Voting Rights Act is "subject to some interpretation," Gwinnett County will follow through with providing Spanish-language ballots if ordered to.

"I think GALEO will pursue litigation," said Joe Sorenson, the Gwinnett County communications director. "If the court decides that GALEO was right and our decision was wrong, we will certainly change it."