Nearly half of Florida’s counties are violating the Voting Rights Act by not offering Spanish-language ballots and other election materials to citizens, a suit filed in federal court Thursday alleges.
The lead plaintiff in the suit is Marta Rivera, a woman in her 70s who lived all of her life in Puerto Rico until she moved to Gainsville last year after Hurricane Maria severely damaged the U.S. territory. Rivera is more comfortable with Spanish than English, but her daughter helped her register to vote. The suit says election officials will offer her only an English-language ballot this fall, violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A provision of the 1965 law says anyone educated in a public school in the U.S. or territory where the language is not English can’t be blocked from voting based on their English proficiency.
Rivera’s lawyers want the court to let her represent all voters with Puerto Rican education who have limited or no English proficiency living in 32 of Florida’s 67 counties. They estimate there are at least 30,000 voters in the state who meet those conditions. More than 135,000 people moved from Puerto Rico to Florida in the weeks following Hurricane Maria last year, more than to any other state. They could be a potent political force in this year’s midterm elections but have been slow to register so far.
The suit asks that a federal court quickly step in to require election officials to offer Spanish on things such as ballots, candidate guides, registration materials and signs as well as Spanish-language assistance at the polls. Early voting in the state began Thursday for its Aug. 28 primary.
Stuart Naifeh, a lawyer with the think tank Demos, which is representing Rivera and five nonprofit groups that work to mobilize Spanish-speaking voters, said they chose the 32 counties using census data to identify places where there were high concentrations of Puerto Ricans and people who aren’t proficient in English. In April, lawyers started writing letters to 13 of the counties with the largest Puerto Rican populations and decided to take action after officials in all 13 counties brushed off their concerns.
“The response was basically ‘we don’t think we have that many Puerto Ricans here. If you can provide us specific information about people and where they are in our county, you know we’ll talk to you,’” Naifeh said in an interview. “It seemed to us that they were not taking it seriously and instead of taking responsibility themselves or determining what the needs of their voters were, which is their job, they sort of shifted it to us to tell them who their voters are and what their needs are.”
“They should have been doing this a long time ago,” he added. “The urgency now is much greater because of Hurricane Maria.”
Kim Barton, the supervisor of elections in Alachua County, where Rivera lives, and a named defendant in the suit, said she was aware of the filing and would review it. Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman for Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner (R), also named as a defendant in the suit, said Detzner was complying with the Voting RIghts Act.
“The Department of State provides all of its election materials in English and Spanish in accordance with the Voting Rights Act and this lawsuit does not dispute that fact. The Department believes that all Supervisors of Elections should continue making voting accessible for all voters including those whose first language is not English,” Revell said in a statement. “This lawsuit names 32 locally-elected Supervisors of Elections who are responsible for voting in their counties and we will review it.”
The provision of the Voting Rights Act at issue in the case has been used to challenge individual counties before, but Naifeh said he was unaware of an earlier case where it had been used to sue so many counties at once.