Spanish-language ballots an ‘impossibility,’ 32 counties say

A judge must quickly decide whether newly-arrived Puerto Ricans are covered by the Voting Rights Act.
A bilingual voting sign in Hillsborough []
A bilingual voting sign in Hillsborough []
Published Sept. 5, 2018|Updated Sept. 5, 2018

Election supervisors in 32 Florida counties say it's an "impossibility" to produce ballots and other voting materials in Spanish for the November general election.

They will face off in a Tallahassee courtroom Wednesday with several advocacy groups who say the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires those counties to produce bilingual ballots.

Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, Hispanic Federation and three other groups say federal law requires Florida to have bilingual voting materials and poll workers available to people who aren't proficient in English. The lawsuit claims there are at least 30,000 voters in that category in the 32 counties, including in Pasco, Hernando and Monroe in the Keys.

Those groups flatly argue that Florida is violating the Voting Rights Act and that Puerto Rican voters are "irreparably harmed" by the state's inaction.

The counties argue that they would have to buy, install and test new voting software and hire and train more bilingual poll workers, and that it's too late to revise their budgets. The fiscal year for counties begins Oct. 1.

"There simply is not enough time," the counties argue in court papers filed with U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee. Imposing such a requirement now, less than nine weeks before the election, would "severely disrupt" an orderly vote, they say.

But the plaintiffs say they approached the counties months ago and asked them to produce bilingual materials, but the counties refused.

Gov. Rick Scott's administration argues in court papers that it supports expanded access to election materials for all Floridians but lacks the power to compel the 32 counties to provide bilingual ballots (plaintiffs disagree and cite cases in which Detzner has given specific direction to counties). The state, which translates all information to Spanish on its elections website, also accuses the plaintiffs of waiting too long to file suit.

Scott's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, is asking the court to be dropped as a defendant.

The named plaintiff in the case, Marta Valentina Rivera Madera, filed a new declaration with the court, stating she moved to Alachua County to be with her daughter after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico last September. She registered to vote last summer when she got a Florida ID card at a state driver's license office.

"I cannot read, speak or understand English well," she says. "I do not understand ballots, voting instructions or other election-related information provided only in English. I am not able to vote effectively using an English-only ballot."

Walker must decide whether the so-called Purcell principle applies in this case. In an Arizona case, Purcell v. Gonzalez, federal courts stood for the proposition that "courts will not disrupt an imminent election absent a powerful reason for doing so."

Florida's general election ballots must be sent to overseas and military voters by Sept. 22.

READ MORE: Meet Mark Walker, the judge who keeps clashing with Scott

Walker has ruled against the state in past voting rights cases, including striking down the Scott administration's ban on early voting on college campuses in July and extending the voter registration period in 2016 following Hurricane Matthew.