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Voter access focus of DeKalb Board of Elections meeting

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Voter access focus of DeKalb Board of Elections meeting

Board Chair Dele Lowman Smith, Vice Chair Nancy Jester, Board member Susan Motter, Board member Anthony Lewis. Photo by Sara Amis

This story has been updated.

DeKalb County, GA — Precinct changes, voting machines, and translation services for voters were all topics of discussion at the DeKalb Board of Registration & Elections meeting May 11.

All of those who signed up for public comment were there to urge the elections board to approve a resolution presented by the DeKalb County Commission. It urges the board of elections to expand translation services for voters, including offering voter education materials in more languages and providing translation services at the polls.

DeKalb was the first Georgia county to offer voter materials in Spanish and Korean in 2020, and already goes above and beyond any state or federal requirements.

Luis Zaldivar, the Georgia Director for CASA, said that language can be a barrier to equal access at the ballot box and full participation as a citizen. Dr. Anar Parikh said that 19% of DeKalb residents speak a language other than English in the home.  

Salik Sohani of the Georgia Muslim Voters Project said that he believes that Arabic speakers were undercounted in the last census and therefore the data used to identify languages spoken in DeKalb County may not be fully representative.

Board members were generally supportive, but several had questions about what the expansion would entail, how much it would cost, and whether the county commission would fund it.

“I just want the public to know that this is a very important topic for me personally. My mother was a naturalized citizen. She became a citizen in the late 1960s and English was not her first language,” said board member Susan Motter.

Board chair Dele Lowman Smith also expressed support for the goal but reservations about some of the specifics.

“I want to state, as several of my colleagues have, I’m very much committed to this,” Lowman Smith said. She emphasized that the department’s goal was to make voting accessible to every citizen who wants to vote.

However, Lowman Smith said having poll workers for every language in every precinct is not a reasonable expectation.

Other board members agreed, saying that the district is struggling to hire enough poll workers. Motter described finding bilingual poll workers as a “tough recruiting process.”

Lowman Smith said that she observed call-in translation services being used in Orange County, CA, and that might be a solution.

DeKalb Voter Registration and Elections Executive Director Keisha Smith requested that the board defer a decision until their July meeting so that her department can gather information about the county’s specific needs and develop a plan for implementation.

The board agreed with a 4-0 vote. “We’ve got to do our due diligence, so we can continue to be standard bearers in this area,” Motter said.

In other DeKalb Elections Board business: 

– During her director’s update, Smith reported that of the department’s $9.3 million budget for the year, it had spent $1.9 million to date. Smith said the department was currently spending about $466,000 per month but that spending spikes during elections.

– The department plans to purchase 656 vote center hubs from Runbeck Election Services for about $2 million. The hubs are self-contained units containing two to four voting stations and can be rolled in and set up more easily by poll workers.

– A number of precinct changes were presented for approval.

Motter asked how the boundary decisions are made and why some houses on the same street were in different precincts.

“This looks snaggletoothed,” Motter said.

Management Analyst James Catherwood said that all the boundaries were based on jurisdictional changes, including the option exercised by some homeowners to have their property annexed into cities individually. 

“Those that don’t stem from annexation stem from redistricting,” Catherwood said.

Changes to precinct boundaries include but are not limited to alignment with Tucker and Brookhaven city limits, and annexation of individual houses into Atlanta and Chamblee. 

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