By DARA KAM NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Voters throughout the state will have access to Spanish-language ballots in time for next year’s presidential election, under regulations Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is advancing.
DeSantis in April said he wanted to make Spanish-language ballots available statewide, noting that Florida “has a significant Spanish-speaking population and our state is home to many Puerto Ricans who moved here after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.”
Secretary of State Laurel Lee’s office will hold a second workshop on the issue Aug. 9 in Tallahassee, according to a notice published Tuesday. The notice referred to “the state’s Puerto Rican American population” and a lack of statewide uniformity for Spanish-language ballots.
The issue also has been the subject of a federal lawsuit filed last August, three months before the 2018 general election, by groups representing Spanish-speaking Floridians.
The case focuses on Puerto Rican voters and part of the federal Voting Rights Act aimed at people who were educated in schools where the predominant language was not English.
Last September, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued an order requiring elections supervisors in 32 counties to provide Spanish-language sample ballots but did not require Spanish-language ballots to be made available for the November elections, saying there wasn’t enough time for supervisors to comply. In May, Walker required supervisors to provide Spanish-language ballots and other assistance to Spanish-speaking voters in Florida’s March 2020 presidential primary election.
Lawyers for Lee’s office, which began the rulemaking process to address Spanish-language ballots in April, wrote in a court filing that “Puerto Ricans are unique among American citizens” because the primary language of instruction in schools on the island is Spanish.
“Making available Spanish-language materials for these American citizens educated in Spanish is simply the right thing to do,” the state’s lawyers wrote, echoing DeSantis’ sentiment.
While it’s unclear exactly how many voters relocated to the state following Maria, plaintiffs in the case referred to news reports that said more than 168,000 people from Puerto Rico arrived in Florida within two months after Maria ravaged the island in September 2017 and at least another 100,000 more were expected to arrive.
In the strongly worded May order, Walker wrote that, while Lee and the governor “should be lauded for initiating rulemaking designed to bring the state into compliance” with the federal Voting Rights Act, the rules may not be finalized before Florida’s March primary elections.
The judge noted that his order “is not a bolt out of the blue,” since the Voting Rights Act “has been the law of the land since 1965 and supervisors of elections should have been complying with the law for more than 50 years,” even without the court’s intervention.
“It’s simple. The best way to avoid litigation and stay out (of) the courts is to follow the law,” Walker wrote.
The rule published by Lee’s office on Tuesday would require elections officials in each of the state’s 67 counties to provide Spanish-language ballots to voters, a requirement that goes further than the 32 counties sought by plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit. The rule also would require supervisors to translate ballots into other languages, when required by law or court order.
The proposed rule “does not prohibit a supervisor of elections from including one or more other languages as he or she determines is necessary to accommodate the respective electorate,” the proposal said.
“Ballots may include more than one language,” but the English version must appear first on the ballot, under the proposed rule.
But in written comments following a May workshop, lawyers for the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit wrote that the proposed rule does not go far enough because it does not require bilingual ballots.
“Bilingual official ballots are necessary to protect the secrecy of Spanish-language voters’ ballots, to avoid potential intimidation of Spanish-language voters, to avoid mistakes and misunderstandings by poll workers about the proper provision of Spanish-language ballots, to avoid the possibility that not enough unilingual ballots are created or made available at each precinct, and to ensure that the voting process is fully inclusive of and effective for Spanish-language voters,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote.
The rule published Tuesday also addresses a ballot-design issue that arose in Broward County during last year’s elections. Addressing that issue was included in a sweeping elections package approved by the Legislature this spring.
Under the new law, which went into effect July 1, elections officials must either provide instructions across the top of a ballot or down the left side of the ballot. Races cannot be placed beneath instructions that run down the side of a ballot.
While the new law addresses the ballot-design issue, other parts of the legislative package are being challenged in court. That includes portions of the law that would carry out a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to convicted felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.”
Under the new law, “all terms of sentence” include payment of any restitution, fines or fees ordered by courts. Plaintiffs in the case allege that the law is a “modern-day poll tax” that “discriminates on the basis of wealth,” while Republicans contend they are complying with the language of the constitutional amendment.
Plaintiffs in a separate lawsuit are alleging another provision of the law, which deals with campus early voting sites, was designed to make it harder for college and university students to cast their ballots.