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11th Circuit rejects demand for bilingual voting materials in Georgia county

A metro Atlanta county’s failure to provide Spanish-language election materials to voters does not violate the Voting Rights Act, the Atlanta-based appeals court ruled.

ATLANTA (CN) — Voting rights organizations cannot challenge a decision by Georgia election officials to provide absentee ballot applications and voting-related information to residents of a metro Atlanta county in English only, a unanimous panel of the 11th Circuit ruled Wednesday.

Rejecting arguments made during a September hearing, the panel found that the Gwinnett County Board of Elections had no duty to provide Spanish speakers in the state’s second-most populous county with Spanish translations of voting materials before the 2020 presidential primary election.

The panel ruled that Georgia is not a “covered jurisdiction” under Section 203(b) of the Voting Rights Act. While Section 203(c) of the law requires Gwinnett County officials to provide bilingual voting materials, it does not require the county to translate materials supplied by the state.

In a 50-page opinion, a three-judge panel of the appeals court disagreed with a Georgia federal judge's finding that the organizations lacked legal standing but nonetheless upheld the October 2020 decision dismissing the case on the merits.

“203(c) only applies to Gwinnett County when it 'provides' voting materials, i.e., when it furnishes or supplies the materials. Nothing in the statute requires Gwinnett County to translate voting materials provided by another entity," U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Lagoa, a Donald Trump appointee, wrote on behalf of the panel.

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires certain states and their political subdivisions to provide voting materials in languages in addition to English. Gwinnett County is the only Georgia county subject to this requirement because of its Spanish-speaking population.

According to the Department of Justice, Section 203 calls for bilingual ballot access when more than 5% or 10,000 voting age citizens are members of a single language minority group, have depressed literacy rates and are not proficient in English.

U.S. Census data shows that Gwinnett County has a Hispanic population of 21.7%.

“While § 203(c) requires Gwinnett County to provide its voting materials in both English and Spanish, it does not require Gwinnett County to translate voting materials provided by [Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger],” the ruling states. “And plaintiffs failed to plead facts to support its conclusory allegations that the Gwinnett County Board of Elections provides English-only voting materials, specifically absentee ballot applications, on its website.”

The decision comes after the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sued Gwinnett County election officials and Raffensperger. The organization was joined by the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, New Georgia Project, Common Cause and two Spanish-speaking voters.

Seeking relief on behalf of all Spanish-speaking voters in Gwinnett County who have limited English proficiency, the plaintiffs claimed that they were denied equal access to voting by mail in the 2020 primary election when Raffensperger mailed English-language absentee ballot applications at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic to all 6.9 million active Georgia voters. The idea was to encourage voters to cast absentee ballots and avoid in-person contact at polling places.

According to the plaintiffs, issues with language accessibility extended even further: election information, including Georgia’s online absentee-ballot portal, online voter precinct cards and the secretary of state’s website and press releases were also only issued in English.

The Gwinnett County Board of Elections allegedly did not post the information in Spanish on its own website.

The 11th Circuit was unpersuaded by arguments that the websites’ Spanish translation functions are inaccurate and not obvious to users.

“That Spanish-speaking voters have to click a button to translate the webpage from English to Spanish does not render the website ‘only in the English language’,” Lagoa wrote.

The Atlanta-based appeals court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Section 203 could still apply to Georgia based on the presence of Gwinnett County as a covered political subdivision within its borders.

“If plaintiffs’ reading were correct, Congress’ express limitation of § 203(b)’s prohibition to 'covered' jurisdictions would be meaningless, or at least something very different from what the statute’s plain language provides,” the ruling states. “Under § 203(b), the prohibition on providing English-only materials applies only to states or political subdivisions that meet the statutory formula’s criteria. If a state or political subdivision does not meet those criteria, Congress has imposed no limitation under § 203(b) on that entity’s ability to provide voting materials only in English.”

The ruling points out that the issues raised by the case were partially mooted by Governor Brian Kemp's decision in March 2021 to sign Senate Bill 202 into law. The wide-ranging bill overhauled Georgia’s election laws and prohibited the secretary of state from sending absentee ballot applications unless requested by the voter.

Lagoa was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee, and Senior U.S. District Judge Harvey Schlesinger, a George H.W. Bush appointee sitting by designation from the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

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