By Lynn Ledford, Elections Director, Gwinnett County Board of Voter Registrations and Elections
After working in Voter Registrations and Elections in Georgia for three decades now, I’ve experienced the many complexities of running a local election. Today, Gwinnett is chartering unfamiliar territory as the first county in the state to convert our elections materials to multiple languages. In December 2016, Gwinnett County was designated a language minority jurisdiction under Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act. The designation comes from data collected by the American Community of Surveys that shows our Hispanic population has reached the threshold to require multi-language voting materials.
Though multi-language ballots are used by other jurisdictions around the country, either voluntarily or to fulfill requirements, it’s a new process for us. So while we may not be reinventing the wheel, we are adding some tread. Though the process has undoubtedly been a challenge, we gladly accept the opportunity to better serve our community. As the most diverse county in the state of Georgia, we in Gwinnett County take tremendous pride in educating people of all backgrounds about the local elections process and ensuring that they are able to take part in the democratic process by exercising their right to vote. Creating bilingual ballots and election materials allows us to better reach a large demographic in Gwinnett County.
Our county government departments are well aware of the challenge of serving a diverse population and provided a great deal support throughout the process. It truly was not accomplished in a silo; our project leadership team consisted of representatives from various work groups, including Strategy and Performance Management, Information Technology Services, Law, Human Resources, and Community Services. We began by first meeting with Department of Justice staff and analyzing the DOJ consent orders. Next, we researched other jurisdictions’ strategies. This step was important because, as I mentioned, we are not the first community to go through this transition.
We then went through the arduous task of collecting all of our voter–registration- and election-related documents and inputting them into a detailed spreadsheet that designated each document as public facing or not. At that point, we determined whether each form would be created as a single document with both Spanish and English text or as separate documents. After that, the procedures and forms were mapped for translations and updates.
In the next phase, we created plans to recruit bilingual office staff and poll workers and to expand our outreach efforts. This included creating our own internal Spanish-language glossary to promote consistency within our messaging. The Elections page of the Gwinnett County website was also outfitted with a translate button along with a public comment form for citizens to provide feedback on our outreach efforts.
Training is another essential component of the transition to multilingual materials. Gwinnett County provides both in-person and online training options, depending on the position. The biggest training challenge so far has been conveying the importance of cultural sensitivity, particularly through online training. Having viewed the Language Access Summit webinar, I believe that listening to multilingual speakers and leaders who have implemented language assistance programs will prove insightful and informative to trainees.
At this point, our original spreadsheet has expanded from a just a few columns to around 20. The spreadsheet acts as a matrix for various activities, tracking costs and ensuring that project groups remain on the same page. The project manager took it a step further and created a Microsoft SharePoint project management site through which other programs and tracking methods can easily be implemented. The SharePoint site provides an invaluable documentation function and allows our team to track past, present, and planned efforts. While the documentation is important for our own process, it also ensures our ability to provide the DOJ with any materials they might need.
While we will not be able to fully measure our success until our first election in May 2018, we continue to strive to improve our ability to serve various populations in our very diverse community. Meeting the requirements of Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act is only the beginning.