Federal judge orders Florida election officials to provide Puerto Ricans with Spanish language voting information

By Sandra Lane | Sep 22, 2018

GAINESVILLE — A federal judge has ordered Florida election officials to provide Puerto Rican residents with Spanish-language voting information in a ruling that will affect 32 Sunshine State counties that conduct English-only elections.

Florida counties identified with Puerto Rican populations will be required to have signs, sample ballots and notices in Spanish, under the ruling. 

U.S. District Court Judge Mark E, Walker rule that it would not be feasible to expect election software and ballots to change prior to the November election, but he ordered that Spanish language voting materials should be made available.

Judge Walker, of the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida, issued the opinion on Sept. 10, in a case filed by plaintiffs Marta Valentina and Rivera Madera, as well as several coalitions, including Faith in Florida, Hispanic Federation, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, Unidosus and Vamos4pr as plaintiffs.

Judge Mark Walker  

Kenneth W. Detzner, Florida Secretary of State, and Kim A. Barton, Alachua County Supervisor of Elections, were named as defendants in the lawsuit. The decision affects nearly half of Florida's counties.

“The issue in this case is whether Florida officials, consistent with longstanding federal law, must provide assistance to Puerto Rican voters who wish to vote. Under the plain language of the Voting Rights Act, they must,” Judge Walker wrote in his opinion.

He continued by saying, “This Court has considered, after a hearing on Sept. 5, 2018, Defendant Kenneth Detzner’s motion to dismiss, and plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction. Defendant Detzner’s motion is denied. Having balanced the equities, plaintiffs’ motion is granted in part and denied in part.”

Judge Walker continued his ruling saying, “This Court is issuing this order on an expedited basis to give the Secretary and the [Gov. Rick] Scott administration ample opportunity to appeal if they seek to block their fellow citizens, many of whom fled after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, from casting meaningful ballots.

The judge explained that he was not granting all of plaintiffs’ requested relief due to the shortness of time before the November elections. 

He said that he has ordered what he considers to be “attainable compliance.” He also acknowledged that some counties in Florida were already observing the services prescribed in his court order. 

Details of Judge Walker’s court order require that ballots shall be translated into other languages that are required by law or court order. He directs that the Florida Secretary of State provide written direction to the supervisors of election in the 32 counties identified including a facsimile sample ballot in Spanish, matching in size, information, layout, placement, and fonts as an official ballot.  

He also ordered the Supervisor of Elections to publish the same facsimile sample ballot on the official website along with Spanish language directions. Signage at all election locations shall also be in Spanish, alerting voters to the availability of such sample ballots. In addition, the judge said that additional Spanish speaking poll workers may be hired.

Judge Walker said as quoted in his ruling, “The Secretary of State’s motion to dismiss is denied. Plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction, is granted in part and denied in part.”

He said “It is granted insofar as the counties shall provide signage, sample facsimile ballots, and notice in Spanish on their websites. It is denied insofar as the counties shall not be required to provide official Spanish-language ballots and such other relief requested by plaintiffs which this court deems infeasible at this late juncture.”

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