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Federal judge orders bilingual ballots for Florida counties, including Lake and Brevard

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 5/11/2019 Steven Lemongello
© Roberto Gonzalez, Orlando Sentinel

A federal judge on Friday ordered 32 Florida counties, including Lake and Brevard, to provide Spanish-language ballots beginning with the 2020 presidential primaries.

The order by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker comes in response to a lawsuit by LatinoJustice and other organizations that claimed as many as 30,000 Puerto Ricans were having their rights violated by counties not providing bilingual ballot access.

The order grants a preliminary injunction that requires Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee and the 32 county elections supervisors to not only provide bilingual ballots by the March 17 primary but to provide Spanish-language election assistance and bilingual voting materials by August.

“In today’s decision, the court recognized that Spanish-speaking voters are not second-class citizens and should not have to wait for their voting rights to be fully protected,” said Stuart Naifeh of Demos, one of the organizations that filed the lawsuit. “For democratic participation to have any meaning, voters must be able to exercise their right to vote in a language they understand.”

Most counties in Florida already provide some level of support in Spanish, such as sample ballots, phone assistance and registration materials.

But though Florida is subject to a section of the Voting Rights Act stipulating that states any county where at least 5 percent of the population is not proficient in English must have all materials available in another language, groups sued under a different provision.

That section protects citizens educated in an American school where the primary language is not English, and doesn’t need to meet a minimum population threshold.

In the suit, the organizations argued that those citizens must receive the same language resources as English speakers.

A county with even one citizen educated in Puerto Rico, they argued, was required to provide Spanish-language ballot access.

LatinoJustice represented registered voters such as Marta Rivera Madera, who moved to Gainesville from Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, in 2018 and planned to vote in November.

In September, Walker, chief judge for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee, had ordered the 32 counties to provide Spanish-language sample ballots but not the ballots themselves, saying there wasn’t enough time before the November elections. The groups filed their request for an injunction in April.

Some county supervisors of elections had initially pushed back on the suit.

Lake County had an estimated 12,000 adult Puerto Rican residents in 2018, according to University of Florida political science chair Daniel E. Smith, but Supervisor of Elections Alan Hays said in August the population wasn’t large enough to justify mandating bilingual ballots.

“Why should the entire county incur that kind of expense when there’s a better way to do it in a more economical way, like providing that sample ballot, for those who need that [translation]?” Hays said at the time. “I find the printing of both languages on the paper to be confusing for almost everyone."

Hays couldn’t immediately be reached for comment late Friday.

Staff writer Bianca Padró Ocasio and the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

slemongello@orlandosentinel.com, 407-418-5920, @stevelemongello, facebook/stevelemongello

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