Federal judge weighs dispute challenging Florida counties that don't provide Spanish ballots

A federal judge Wednesday will hear arguments in a lawsuit seeking to require 32 Florida counties to provide Spanish-language ballots and other materials to Puerto Ricans who are eligible to vote in the state.

The arguments, which focus heavily on the federal Voting Rights Act, will come almost exactly two months before the Nov. 6 general election. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker will consider a request from plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction that would require Spanish-language ballots and assistance for what are believed to be more than 30,000 Puerto Ricans.

“The counties at issue in this case are home to a class of thousands of Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans —- including those who recently arrived after Hurricane Maria —- who are eligible to vote but are unable to vote effectively in English,” the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction said. “But despite repeated requests to many of the counties to provide Spanish-language election materials and assistance to protect the rights of these Floridians, the counties continue to conduct English-only elections that effectively deprive those citizens of their right to vote.”

But attorneys for Secretary of State Ken Detzner and Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton, who is named as a defendant representing other county elections supervisors, want Walker to deny the proposed preliminary injunction. They dispute the plaintiffs’ interpretation of part of the Voting Rights Act and contend that it would be difficult to comply with the requested changes before the November elections.

“It is now too late,” a response filed by Detzner’s attorney said. “With the first ballots for the General Election expected to be mailed on or before September 22, 2018, the 32 counties at issue do not have time or ability to provide the relief the plaintiffs seek. The equities and public interest weigh against the preliminary injunction.”

The potential class-action lawsuit was filed in August by a coalition of groups, with Alachua County resident Marta Valentina Rivera Madera as the named plaintiff. In addition to Alachua, it targets 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 counties.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys have focused on part of the Voting Rights Act that is aimed at people who were educated in schools where the predominant language was not English and seeks to ensure they are not denied the right to vote. The motion said Congress enacted that part of the law “to protect the rights of Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans to vote stateside.”

As a result, the motion for preliminary injunction contends that the 32 counties are required to provide Spanish-language ballots, election materials and bilingual poll workers. The motion estimates at least 30,000 people would be affected in the 32 counties —- and that number doesn’t include people who moved to Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, last year.

The motion said the 32 targeted counties have not provided Spanish-language ballots in recent elections and “provide little to no Spanish-language election materials or assistance.”

“It is well-established that Spanish-language ballots and sample ballots, voting guides and instructions, and bilingual poll workers are necessary to ensure a Spanish-speaking citizen can vote effectively,” the motion for preliminary injunction said. “The counties’ failure to provide those materials in Spanish effectively conditions the right to vote of plaintiff Rivera and the proposed class of thousands of similarly-situated Puerto Ricans on an ability to read and understand English —- and, because they cannot fully read and understand English, effectively deprives them of their right to vote.”

But Barton’s attorneys contended in a response filed last week that the Voting Rights Act does not require “specific” Spanish-language materials and assistance. The attorneys also cited a series of steps Barton has taken to help accommodate Spanish-speaking voters, such as providing a number of materials in Spanish, providing bilingual support in her office and planning to have a voters’ guide translated into Spanish.

“The question is, to what extent must Supervisor Barton go in providing supporting materials in Spanish that will allow the plaintiff (Rivera) to meaningfully engage in the electoral process and cast her vote?” the response said. “Supervisor Barton believes that the action she is taking in Alachua County meets the requirements of the VRA (Voting Rights Act), despite Supervisor Barton not currently providing the actual voting ballot in Spanish.”