When a plan to let voters decide if the city of Morrow should offer multilingual ballots hit a snag, the Morrow City Council opted to make direct democracy even more direct.
The city council had decided in early August to hold a citizen referendum on offering ballots in Vietnamese and Spanish, but Clayton County, which administers Morrow’s elections, refused to put it on the Nov. 7 ballot, Morrow Mayor John Lampl told citizens attending an Aug. 22 council meeting.
After some discussion, Lampl decided to poll the roughly 60 people in attendance by a show of hands. “Let’s do something a little bit different. If the city ran a bilingual ballot, yes or no?” he asked
After the majority of people raised their hands for ‘yes’,” the city council voted 5-0 in favor of a resolution to debut the multilingual ballots in 2025. Councilmember Van Tran abstained. She is running against Lampl for mayor in the Nov. 7 general election.
The controversy behind the vote
The decision ended a controversy that began six weeks earlier during a July 11 meeting.
Tran had asked the city to add Vietnamese and Spanish ballots to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. Congress amended the law in 1975 with Secton 203, directing that local goverments must provide ballots in the language of a minority group that makes up over 5% of the population and has limited English proficiency.
Tran, who is Vietnamese-American, said at the July meeting that of Morrow’s 6,400 residents, 33% are Asian and 22% are Latino, according to Census Bureau data.That includes 30% who are immigrants and non-native English-speakers.
“We should encourage them to get involved, to vote, and to raise their voice, and to keep our democracy,” Tran said.
“Like Councilwoman Tran, I believe that equal language access on ballots is very important. I think people should know what it is they’re voting on specifically,” concurred Morrow resident Oscar Lanza Menjivar at the July meeting.
But Councilmember Dorothy Dean responded by calling Tran “un-American.”
“You, as an immigrant American, you took an oath of citizenship in English,” Dean said to Tran. “As a woman of color, who has lived in this country for 72 years, who has had to march, stand in line to protest, to get the right to vote…you do not deserve to sit on that dais as an elected official. You have failed in your oath of office, you have failed as a citizen of this country … Shame on you, Van Tran.”
Dean’s comment went viral on social media. Twenty-six state legislators from the Asian-American Pacific-Islander, Hispanic and Black caucuses condemned it in a July 24 joint statement, calling Dean un-American for questioning whether immigrant citizens “deserve” to participate in democracy.
Meanwhile, Tran and a group of volunteers went door-to-door in Morrow to collect signatures for a petition to get multilingual ballots on the council’s agenda. At its Aug. 8 meeting, the council voted to put it to the voters in a Nov. 7 ballot referendum: “Should the city of Morrow use bilingual ballots on all future city elections?”
But just before the next scheduled city council meeting on Aug. 22, Clayton County’s attorney, Charles Reed, informed the council that the county would not put the referendum on the Morrow ballots for the upcoming November election.
At that meeting, councilmembers proposed various solutions—such as Morrow running its own municipal election. “I can say with absolute certainty that we tried. But we’re not capable of running an election ourselves,” said Lampl. “Does anyone out there have a solution?”
Councilmember Renee Knight suggested the city skip the voter referendum and go ahead with multilingual ballots for the 2025 election. “That’s the only way we could do it affirmatively,” she said.
That’s when the council voted on what Morrow’s city clerk, Victor Aguilar, later called “a historic action” – and approved the multilingual ballots.