Nearly half of Florida’s counties have agreed to provide Spanish-language assistance and materials to voters after a years-long legal battle.
Several Latino civil rights groups announced on Monday a settlement with 31 counties in a 2018 federal lawsuit centered on allegations that elected officials were disenfranchising the votes of Spanish-speakers in the Sunshine State.
The lawsuit claimed the counties were essentially running English-only elections, which is a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 4E of the act states that individuals who were taught in an American school where the primary language is not English, such as Puerto Ricans, can’t be denied the right to vote just because they cannot understand English.
Since the lawsuit was filed, state officials established new rules requiring all 67 counties to offer Spanish-language ballots but advocacy groups have argued that those rules were not enough.
Under the settlement, 31 counties will be required to provide more robust assistance, including Spanish versions of their mail-in ballots and secrecy envelopes for all of their elections, Spanish translations on their elections websites, Spanish signs and a hotline to assist Spanish-speakers if bilingual staff members are not available, said Kira Romero-Craft, an attorney at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, which is one of the groups behind the lawsuit.
Those counties are: Alachua, Bay, Brevard, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Hernando, Highlands, Indian River, Jackson, Lake, Leon, Levy, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Monroe, Okaloosa, Okeechobee, Pasco, Putnam, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Sumter, Taylor, and Wakulla. The county of Charlotte, which was named in the lawsuit, did not join the settlement.
“The right to vote is an empty right if you can’t vote in a language you understand and we are very pleased with the settlement that was reached,” said Stuart Naifeh, an attorney with voters’ rights group Demos, which represented the plaintiffs.
The lack of Spanish-language voting materials has especially impacted the increasing number of Puerto Ricans who have relocated to Florida following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, advocates said.
The plaintiffs have said the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey found that just over 30,000 Puerto Rican adults in the 32 counties are not proficient in English. That survey took place between 2011 and 2015 and Florida’s seen a marked increase in its Puerto Rican population.
One of the Puerto Ricans who fled is Marta Valentina Rivera Madera, a 73-year-old woman who is the named plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Rivera Madera had lived all her life in Puerto Rico when she decided to move to Gainesville, Florida, in 2017. Her home suffered extensive damage when Hurricane Maria hit the island and she struggled to find medicines to treat her diabetes, she said.
While Rivera Madera has been taking English lessons, she said she’s happy that once again she will feel comfortable voting without assistance.
“We will not have to rely in others or bring anyone to translate,” Rivera Madera said in Spanish. “I think it’s great that we are now going to be capable of doing this ourselves.”
Naifeh said the groups have seen that the counties have been largely following the state’s new rules and were “willing to commit to continuing to stay in compliance.”