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Associated Press Newswires

Georgia's First Spanish Ballots To Debut In Hall County This November


April 13, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

GAINESVILLE, Ga. (AP) - While most voters will pick between George Bush and John Kerry in November, Hall County voters will have to first choose between "the president" and "el presidente."

Because of its burgeoning Hispanic population, Hall County will be the first in Georgia to offer Spanish ballots. They will be made available for the first time in this year's general election.

"It's a proactive measure that helps ensure that Hispanics who are not proficient in English register to vote and also fully understand what they are voting for," said Dr. Jorge Atiles, a University of Georgia professor who authored the study, "The Needs of Georgia's New Latinos."

Because of their large Spanish-speaking populations, hundreds of counties across the country -- including all in New Mexico, Texas and California -- are required by the federal government to provide ballots in both Spanish and English. However, Hall County is not among them. Instead, the state is using the county as part of a pilot program in preparation for when it and other Georgia counties likely will be required to offer Spanish ballots.

The U.S. Department of Justices mandates that counties offer second-language ballots when more than 5 percent of their voting-age citizens are part of a single-language minority that does not speak or understand English adequately to participate in elections. That includes having an English illiteracy rate higher than the national average within the minority group.

None of Georgia's counties have reached those thresholds, but the state anticipates several will by the 2010 census.

Hall County was the guinea pig for the state's electronic voting systems in the 2002 primaries, which is part of the reason it was chosen as testing ground for the Spanish-ballot initiative. It also was chosen because the 2000 census indicated that 19.6 percent of the county's residents were of Hispanic descent, as opposed to a state average of 5.3 percent.

Census data also indicate that 21.2 percent of Hall County residents older than 5 speak a language besides English at home, compared to about 10 percent for Georgia.

"It's something that is coming to our county in particular, but the state also," said Anne Phillips, Hall County's director of elections.

The electronic-voting machines are equipped to handle different languages, Phillips said, so there will be at a minimal cost. She said the secretary of state's office will pick up the tab for the test run.

Some cities and counties are also required to provide ballots in languages beyond English and Spanish. For example, 21 counties in South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska are required to offer election materials in the Sioux language. Los Angeles County in California has to provide special ballots for Latino, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese residents.

Atiles said the move to help Latinos vote is especially helpful to Puerto Ricans.

"You have American nationals such as those born and raised in Puerto Rico, where the first language is Spanish," he said. "When they relocate to the mainland -- if they are not fluent in English -- they could have problems voting."

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