Federal judge considers suit to require bilingual ballots in 32 Florida counties

Published: Sep. 5, 2018 at 5:01 PM EDT
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By: Jake Stofan | Capitol News Service

September 5, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CNS) -- Should ballots be bilingual? That’s the question before a federal judge in Florida's capital city.

The federal suit against the state was brought after Hurricane Maria, when a large population of Puerto Ricans moved to Florida.

It was filed by a coalition of civil rights groups. They argue the state must provide Spanish voting materials and bilingual ballots in 32 counties under the Federal Voting Rights Act.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley began providing a number of voting resources in Spanish after he was contacted by the coalition this past April.

“We had one person request assistance voting in Spanish, you know, out of 206,000 voters, 76,000 that voted,” said Earley.

Despite Earley’s efforts, the coalition wasn’t satisfied with the progress because Leon County doesn’t provide bilingual ballots.Supervisors say it’s impossible to implement everything asked for in the suit in time for the November election.

“We have to do the database work first and then we generate the ballots and send them out,” said Earley. "We have to be able to test them before we mail them out. So, that September 22 deadline just 17 days away is a hard fast deadline for every bit of this as far as bilingual ballots go.”

Judge Mark Walker seemed to agree the deadline couldn't be met, but also suggested the state has ignored federal law for years by not providing the materials to Puerto Ricans in the state.

Walker noted previous court rulings have interpreted the Voting Rights Act to guarantee Puerto Ricans Spanish ballots because they are taught Spanish in U.S. Schools.

“That’s the lesser of the debates right now,” said Earley. "The primary debate I think right now is what is possible for supervisors to put in place for the current election cycle.”

A ruling is expected to come quickly. Based on what the judge said from the bench, neither side is likely to be completely happy with the ruling.

Currently, 14 Florida counties provide bilingual ballots. 13 of those are required to do so by federal law because of their high Spanish-speaking populations.