ATLANTA (CN) — The Eleventh Circuit heard arguments Friday in a case brought by several civil rights groups that seek to require Georgia officials to send absentee ballot applications in Spanish to residents of the state’s second-most populous county.
A group of voters in Gwinnett County, Georgia, who speak Spanish as their first language, say they are wrongfully receiving key election materials in English. In addition, they argue that the Gwinnett County elections board’s website has poor access for voters who don’t speak English.
In a lawsuit brought by voting rights advocates on their behalf last year, they say they have a right to receive voting materials in Spanish because the county is covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.
“Whenever any state or political subdivision [covered by the section] provides registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots, it shall provide them in the language of the applicable minority group as well as in the English language,” reads the law.
John Powers, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, issued a statement in support of his clients’ case.
“The right of Gwinnett County’s Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens to vote is protected by federal law and they deserve an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy. Election officials cannot deny access to bilingual election materials to these citizens,” Powers said.
The lawsuit was filed by his organization alongside the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, New Georgia Project and Common Cause.
It partially stems from a decision by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffenspeger in 2020.
To encourage residents to vote by mail amid the Covid-19 pandemic in the state’s upcoming primary election, the secretary used CARES Act funds to mail absentee ballot applications to Georgia’s 6.9 million active voters.
But all of these applications were in English.
Attorney Brian Sells, who led the appeal and represented the voters during Friday’s oral arguments, said Congress enacted the language minority provisions of the Voting Rights Act in order to “protect citizens who are of limited English proficiency.”
“And, yet, the district court dismissed their claims, concluding among other things that they lack standing and failed to state a claim,” he said, urging the 11th Circuit to rule against a decision made by federal Judge William M. Ray II in October 2020.
Judge Ray ordered that the secretary of state’s office and the Gwinnett County elections board did not violate the federal Voting Rights Act, since people who did not receive the Spanish ballot applications still were able to get them from the county.
U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor interjected to express his opinion that the district court erred when ruling that the plaintiffs had no standing.
“That’s at least my perspective about standing, but I think you’ve got much bigger problems when it comes to the merits,” the George W. Bush nominee said.
Sells said he agreed with Pryor’s standing-related interpretation, adding that his clients have standing because they alleged difficulty understanding the election materials.
These clients were educated in non-English-speaking classrooms in Puerto Rico, he said.
Sells turned to the question of merits.
“The meat of this case is the district court’s ruling that the plaintiffs have failed to state a claim for relief under sections 203 and 4e,” he said.
U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Lagoa, a Donald Trump nominee, jumped in to ask how the state of Georgia is covered under Section 203.