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Judge orders 32 Florida counties to help Puerto Rican voters

September 7, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A federal judge ordered 32 Florida counties to provide sample ballots in Spanish so Puerto Rican voters can use them to navigate English-only ballots in a ruling Friday that was often sarcastic and scolding.

A coalition of groups sued the Department of State and the county supervisors in the hope they’d be forced to produce bilingual or Spanish language ballots. While U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker agreed with the defendants that it would be nearly impossible to change election software and to redesign ballots before the Nov. 6 election, he ordered them to make provisions for Puerto Rican voters.

“While lost on some, Puerto Rico is part of the United States,” Walker said in his ruling. “The American flag has flown over the island since 1898, and its people have been American citizens since 1917.”

The lawsuit was filed by a group of non-profit organizations that promote civic involvement in Latino communities. One of the plaintiffs, Marta Valentina Rivera Madera, moved from Puerto Rico to Gainesville after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The suit said she doesn’t believe she can vote effectively because she doesn’t speak, read or understand English well.

“Voting in a language you do not understand is like asking this Court decide the winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry,” Walker wrote. “Ineffective, in other words.”

Florida has 67 counties. Fifteen already provide Spanish language or bilingual ballots. The coalition identified 32 other counties with Puerto Rican voters, and there are another 20 counties with few, if any, Puerto Rican voters.

The judge ordered the 32 counties named in the suit to print sample ballots in Spanish that can be given to Spanish speaking voters at the polls so they can use them to navigate the English ballots they’ll use to cast their votes. The counties must also post the Spanish sample ballots on their websites and post signs in Spanish at polling places making voters aware that that they can ask for Spanish sample ballots, along with instructions on how to use them. He also encouraged the counties to hire bilingual elections workers.

While he said the counties should be providing bilingual ballots he acknowledged that there wasn’t enough time to do so. Walker said he issued his order in a hurry to give the Department of State and Republican Gov. Rick Scott time to appeal “if they seek to block their fellow citizens, many of whom fled after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, from casting meaningful ballots.”

Walker also indicated that voting issues seem to be a perineal problem in Florida, beginning his ruling by describing the movie “Groundhog Day,” in which a character played by Bill Murray has to relive the same day over and over again.

“Here we are again. 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 wrote.

The state doesn’t plan to appeal the decision.

“The department will advise the locally elected supervisors of elections to comply,” said Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

Scott spokesman John Tupps said the governor is glad more counties will be providing material in English and Spanish.

“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,” Tupps said in an email.

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