Voting rights advocates sue 32 Florida counties for not providing ballots in Spanish


Voting rights advocates are suing 32 counties in Florida for failing to provide bilingual ballots, resources and assistance to Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans.

The lawsuit alleges Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner and county elections officials are violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protects the voting rights of U.S. citizens educated in "American-flag schools" in
languages other than English. The law prohibits states from making the ability to speak English a condition of voting – instead, state officials are required to provide Spanish-language voting materials and assistance to Puerto Ricans who attended school on the island and are "unable to vote effectively in English," according to the complaint.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, asks a judge to order Florida officials to translate their voting materials in time for Nov. 6 election. The lawsuit was filed by LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Demos on behalf of several civic groups, including Mi Familia Vota and Vamos4PR, as well as one voter from Alachua County, Marta Valentina Rivera Madera.

Rivera Madera, 70, fled Puerto Rico after the catastrophic devastation caused by Hurricane María damaged her home and destroyed her belongings, according to a news release from the organizations listed in the complaint. She moved to Gainesville to be close to her daughter and registered to vote in Alachua County. But Alachua County does not provide bilingual ballots or voter resources like information about the candidates in Spanish. Rivera Madera struggles in English and worries about whether she can cast an informed ballot in the November election.

"I am looking forward to exercising my right to vote as I always have in Puerto Rico," Rivera Madera said in a statement. "I want to be able to vote in the language I speak best because I take voting very seriously and have always educated myself about the candidates and issues before casting my ballot. But here in Gainesville, I can only get information in English."

The 32 counties named in the lawsuit include Alachua, Bay, Brevard, Charlotte, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Hernando, Highlands, Indian River, Jackson, Lake, Leon, Levy, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Monroe, Okaloosa, Okeechobee, Pasco, Putnam, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Sumter, Taylor, and Wakulla.

Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles says all voter education and election ballots are bilingual in Orange County. A provision under the Voting Rights Act has required the state of Florida and specifically 13 counties, including Orange, to provide language assistance to Spanish-speaking voters.

Florida's Department of State already provides all election materials in English and Spanish in accordance with the Voting Rights Act, according to a spokesperson for Detzner's office.

"This lawsuit does not dispute that fact," says spokesperson Sarah Revell. "The Department believes 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."

Florida has the second highest Puerto Rican population of any U.S. state, and the diaspora has increased significantly because many Puerto Rican evacuees fled to the Sunshine State for refuge after last year's hurricane. The organizations called it "reprehensible that counties in Florida are allowing discriminatory voting policies to deprive Puerto Rican U.S. citizens of a voice in our democracy."

"Casting a vote is the most basic right of any democratic society," said Hispanic Federation president José Calderón in a statement. "Denying anyone this right is wholly unacceptable anywhere in our country, and that goes even more so for those who communities that have endured a long history of voter suppression – like Spanish-speaking Latinos and other people of color in the state of Florida."

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