Federal judge drags Florida election officials in Spanish-language ballots dispute

U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker – the living embodiment of Dorothy Zbornak's raised eyebrow – had some time last week to drag the hell out of Florida election officials who continue their shenanigans regarding Spanish-language ballots.

For those of you who don't know, the Obama-appointed judge has spent the better part of the year being a burr in Republican Gov. Rick Scott's saddle on a number of voting issues, including a ruling against the state's controversial clemency process for former felons where he essentially called the administration a big bunch of crybabies who "embark on a fit of  histrionics atypical for unsuccessful parties before this Court."

Similarly, Walker pulled no punches last Friday in his ruling ordering 32 Florida counties to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and provide Spanish-language sample ballots for the November election.

"Here we are again," an exasperated Walker writes in the introduction of his order. "The clock hits 6:00 a.m. Sonny and Cher’s 'I Got You Babe' starts playing. Denizens of and visitors to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania eagerly await the groundhog’s prediction. And the state of Florida is alleged to violate federal law in its handling of elections."

Walker is referencing the 1993 movie Groundhog Day where Bill Murray's TV weatherman character relives the same day over and over again. It's an extended way of saying the state of Florida is, unsurprisingly, back on its bullshit.

In their original lawsuit, voting rights advocates accused Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner and 32 county elections officials of violating the VRA, which protects the voting rights of U.S. citizens educated in "American-flag schools" in languages other than English, by failing to provide bilingual ballots, resources and assistance to Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans. As Walker points out in his ruling, Puerto Ricans are unique among Americans because they are not educated primarily in English – and don't need to be. 

"But, like all American citizens, they possess the fundamental right to vote," Walker writes. "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."

Walker starts his ruling by easily obliterating Detzner's actual claim that he has no power to force county supervisors of elections to comply with federal law. The judge's summarized response sounds a lot like this clip from The Real Housewives of Atlanta: "Who said that? Who said that? Who said that?!"

"As this Court notes with tiresome regularity, Defendant Detzner is Florida's 'chief election officer,'" Walker writes. "This statutory job description is not window dressing. … Under rules the Department of State has promulgated, 'ballots shall be translated into other languages that are required by law or court order.' This rule is the Secretary of State’s own affirmative acknowledgment of his responsibilities, passed pursuant to state law. There is no qualifying language in the rule. There is no asterisk after the provision stating 'except for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.'"

Walker ends up partially siding with the lawsuit's plaintiffs on the merits of their case, hammering counties' decisions to hold English-only elections for thousands of citizens who don't speak English well as "antithetical to what our democratic government stands for."

"Voting in a language you do not understand is like asking this Court
decide the winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry – ineffective, in other words," Walker says. "Courts have long held that the right to vote includes not only the right to physically enter a polling place and fill out a ballot but also the right to comprehend and understand what is on that ballot."

The federal judge notes, though, that there isn't enough time to provide Spanish-speaking voters with official Spanish-language ballots, absentee ballots and other relief requested without putting election officials under "significant hardships." Instead, he required counties to provide sample Spanish-language ballots with some notice and signage in Spanish.

In a statement to NPR, a spokesperson for Gov. Rick Scott's office says the state department already provides voting materials in English and Spanish, which arguably doesn't do much for Spanish-speaking people trying to cast votes in local county elections.

"Federal law determines which counties are required to provide ballots in Spanish," spokesperson John Tupps said to NPR. "Florida is the world's greatest melting pot, and we don't want any registered voters to not be able to exercise their right because of a language barrier. ... We are glad that more counties will do what we are already doing at the state level."

Walker, who truly has no fucks left to give, takes one final shot at the Scott administration by basically telling them he's issuing the order on an expedited basis to give them enough time to be assholes by appealing the ruling and "[blocking] their fellow citizens, many of whom fled after Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico, from casting meaningful ballots."

"It is remarkable that it takes a coalition of voting rights organizations
and individuals to sue in federal court to seek minimal compliance with the
plain language of a venerable 53-year-old law," Walker concludes in his order. In other words, as one of our favorite Golden Girls would say, "Go to sleep, sweetheart. Pray for brains."

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