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Citing hurricane in Puerto Rico, lawsuit seeks bilingual ballots in 32 more Florida counties

The legal action demands Spanish-language voting materials to help displaced Puerto Ricans.
A bilingual voting sign in Hillsborough []
A bilingual voting sign in Hillsborough []
Published Aug. 16, 2018|Updated Aug. 17, 2018

Voter advocacy groups aligned with Hispanics and Democrats filed a lawsuit Thursday calling on Gov. Rick Scott's administration to order all ballots and election materials to be printed in English and Spanish in 32 counties in the November general election.

The action cites the arrival of Puerto Ricans in Florida after Hurricane Maria last fall, and estimates that more than 30,000 people are affected.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, names as defendants Secretary of State KenDetzner and Kim Barton, the supervisor of elections in Alachua County in Gainesville, where a plaintiff in the case, Marta Valentina Rivera Madera, is registered to vote.

"The counties' first-generation Puerto Rican population has increased significantly in the wake of Hurricane Maria," the lawsuit states. "Most of those newly-arrived residents were educated in Spanish-language schools in Puerto Rico and many are not proficient in English … (They) will not be able to vote effectively unless they have access to Spanish-language ballots, election materials and assistance."

The lawsuit was filed by Faith in Florida, Hispanic Federation, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, UnidosUS and Vamos4PR.

Detzner's office said in a statement that "all supervisors of elections should continue making voting accessible for all voters including those whose first language is not English. This lawsuit names 32 locally-elected supervisors of elections who are responsible for voting in their counties and we will review it." The state said it provided all materials in both languages.

Two plaintiffs' attorneys represent the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union with strong Democratic Party ties.

Scott, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, has frequently highlighted his efforts to help Puerto Ricans who faced massive hurdles in recovering from the devastating storm of nearly a year ago.

Puerto Rican voters tend to identify most closely with the Democratic Party.

The lawsuit includes a declaration from Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist, which included the most recent federal census estimates of the number of Spanish-speaking residents in the 32 counties named in the case (below).

The legal action says that in April, the plaintiffs asked the 13 counties with the largest populations to voluntarily agree to provide bilingual voting materials, but that the counties declined the request in June.

Barton issued a statement saying she'll review the case with her counsel. "I will continue to provide voters in Alachua County the ability to confidently cast their ballots," Barton said.

The federal government, under the Voting Rights Act, already requires 13 Florida counties to provide ballots and voting materials in English and Spanish because at least 5 percent of the voting age population speaks Spanish.

Those counties include Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough and Pinellas, which is providing bilingual materials in a statewide election for the first time in the Aug. 28 primary. The others are DeSoto, Hardee, Hendry, Lee, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Polk and Seminole.

The 32 counties named in Thursday's lawsuit include Pasco and Hernando in the Tampa Bay area and Monroe County in the Florida Keys.

The others include Alachua, Bay, Brevard, Charlotte, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Highlands, Indian River, Jackson, Lake, Leon, Levy, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Okaloosa, Okeechobee, Putnam, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Sumter, Taylor and Wakulla.

Tampa Bay Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.


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