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Court Must Ensure Spanish Language Access for Voters in Florida’s Upcoming Elections

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Court Must Ensure Spanish Language Access for Voters in Florida’s Upcoming Elections

Location: 
Tallahassee, FL

CONTACT: Christiaan Perez, cperez@LatinoJustice.org, 212-739-7581; Shanae Bass, sbass@demos.org

We applaud the Secretary of State’s proposed rule changes, but the changes are too vague and Florida must comply with the law while its rulemaking process takes place

Tallahassee, FL – Today, the federal court for the Northern District of Florida is hearing arguments on a motion for a preliminary injunction asking the court to order Florida’s Secretary of State to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act in upcoming Florida elections by requiring the provision of Spanish-language official ballots, written election materials, and bilingual assistance in 32 Florida counties. This is the latest stage of a lawsuit brought last summer by LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Demos, SEIU, and Altshuler Berzon LLP on behalf of more than 30,000 Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans in the 32 Florida counties, as well as several civic engagement organizations.  The case is Marta Valentina Rivera Madera, et al. v. Laurel M. Lee, et al., N.D. Fla. Case No. 1:18-cv-00152.
 
In September 2018, the court ordered that Spanish-language facsimile (or look alike) ballots be made available to individuals protected by the Voting Rights Act. The court explained that it did not order more because of the short timeframe before the November 2018 election. The plaintiffs have now asked the court to expand its prior order, to require Spanish-language official ballots, translations of other written election materials, and bilingual voting assistance for upcoming elections beginning in August 2019.
 
Recently, as a result of this lawsuit, the Florida Secretary of State proposed two rules to make elections more accessible for all Spanish-speaking Floridians. While those proposed rules are an encouraging first step, however, they do not go far enough and will take too long to be finalized to ensure the needed language assistance for elections in 2019 and possibly in 2020.
 
Following Hurricane Maria and the recent financial crisis, many Puerto Ricans have relocated to Florida. The Voting Rights Act protects their right to vote in Spanish, the language in which they were educated. The court recognized this in September 2018 by ordering that Spanish facsimile ballots be made available in the November election. Now there is ample time before the next elections to ensure full compliance with the Voting Rights Act--through the provision of Spanish official ballots, written election materials, and language assistance--while the rulemaking process proceeds.
 
 “We are encouraged by the Secretary’s proposed rules to make voting more accessible to Spanish-speaking Floridians, however, the rules do not provide sufficient detail needed to comply with the Voting Rights Act and the Secretary’s commitment to have the rules completed by the 2020 Presidential Election fall short for elections in 2019 and remain uncertain for 2020,” said Esperanza Segarra, Senior Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF.
 
"The Voting Rights Act has been the law of the land for over 50 years, and it should not have been news to the Governor or the Secretary of State that Florida must ensure that its citizens can exercise their right to vote in a language they understand,” said Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos. “Florida is home to hundreds of thousands of Spanish-speaking citizens, including citizens educated in Puerto Rican schools. It is unacceptable for the state to ask Americans to wait for their fundamental voting rights to be protected.  Florida must provide comprehensive bilingual elections assistance, and it must provide it now.”
 
"All Floridians deserve the chance to understand their ballot when they vote. In a state as diverse as Florida, we must acknowledge that not every registered voter is a monolingual English speaker," said Monica Russo, President of SEIU Florida. "Just like other government services in our state, the Secretary of State should provide official ballots and election materials in multiple languages. Any effort to constrain a person’s right to vote is a severe form of disenfranchisement."
 
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LatinoJustice PRLDEF works to create a more just society by using and challenging the rule of law to secure transformative, equitable and accessible justice, by empowering our community and by fostering leadership through advocacy and education.
 
Demos is a dynamic think-and-do tank that powers the movement for a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy. Through cutting-edge policy research, inspiring litigation, and deep relationships with grassroots organizations, Demos champions solutions that will create a democracy and economy rooted in racial equity.
 
SEIU Florida represents over 55,000 active and retired healthcare professionals, public employees, and property service workers in the state of Florida. SEIU members provide vital public services in Florida’s hospitals, nursing homes, public schools, community colleges, municipal and county governments, malls, and universities. With over 2.1 million members, SEIU is the fastest-growing union in North America.
 
Altshuler Berzon LLP is a San Francisco law firm that specializes in labor and employment, constitutional, environmental, civil rights, campaign and election, and impact litigation, at both the trial and appellate levels, in federal and state courts, as well as before administrative agencies.

Background Materials

  1. Statement in response to Governor DeSantis proposed rule requiring Spanish-language official ballots throughout the state
  2. Statement Post 2018 Election Observing Suppression of Latino Vote
  3. Rivera Madera et al v. DETZNER et al Complaint