Florida Must Provide Spanish-Language Ballots, Judge Says

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker declared last week that 32 Florida counties must provide Spanish-language ballots in the upcoming midterm elections.Walker singled out Florida’s Secretary of State, Kenneth Detzner, who claimed that he had no control over election materials in the individual counties in the state.

Walker disagrees. In his decision he wrote, “As this Court notes with tiresome regularity, Defendant Detzner is Florida’s ‘chief election officer'” and is therefore in charge of enforcing election laws.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed a number of barriers that were being used in various states to keep African Americans from voting. These barriers were described as a “test or device,” and specific examples given included literacy tests and poll taxes.

In the 1970s the act was amended to state that “it is necessary to prohibit the States from conditioning the right to vote of such persons on ability to read, write, understand, or interpret any matter in the English language.”

Speaking specifically of Puerto Rico, the Act says that adults who attended Spanish-language schools in Puerto Rico cannot be refused the opportunity to vote because of their lack of English language skills. Walker reminded Detzner of this fact, saying, “Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Unique among Americans, they are not educated primarily in English — and do not need to be. But, like all American citizens, they possess the fundamental right to vote.”

No vote is held in Puerto Rico for residential elections. Since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States rather than a State, residents cannot vote for president. Once they live in a State, however, U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico can immediately vote. The Voting Rights Act applies.

The Act has specific information about the materials that must be provided to voters:

“In addition to the meaning given the term under section 4(c), the term ‘test or device’ shall also mean any practice or requirement by which any State or political subdivision provided any registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots, only in the English language, where the Director of the Census determines that more than five per centum of the citizens of voting age residing in such State or political subdivision are members of a single language minority.”

In other words, any county in Florida in which 5% of the people speak Spanish must provide ballots and other materials in Spanish. Since Florida as a whole has 20% Spanish speakers, it is likely that the majority of Florida’s counties are already required to provide for Spanish speaking voters. Governor Rick Scott pointed this out in his response.

However, the coalition that brought the suit claims that the law is not enforced. Judge Walker limited the number of accommodations counties must provide, since the time until the elections is short, but insisted that each of the 32 counties must have Spanish-language signage and must publicize the fact that Spanish-language materials will be provided.

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