Judge Orders Compliance with the Voting Rights Act for Spanish Speaking Voters Before 2018 Midterms in Florida

Release Date: 
September 7, 2018

Tallahassee, FL- Voting rights advocates applaud the ruling from District Judge Mark E. Walker ordering compliance with Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act which requires voting and election materials and assistance be provided to U.S. Citizen voters educated in Spanish in Puerto Rico. Today’s decision recognizes the growing presence of Puerto Rican voters and their right to fully participate in elections that would impact their future.

Civic Engagement groups  Faith in Florida, Hispanic Federation, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, UnidosUS, and Vamos4PR, and individual plaintiff,  Marta Rivera Madera filed suit against Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner and the Supervisors of Elections of 32 Florida counties who are in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965’s requirement to provide bilingual voting materials and assistance, including ballots and poll worker support, for Puerto Ricans, educated, in Spanish in Puerto Rico. The plaintiffs are represented by Demos, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and the law firm of Altshuler Berzon LLP. Service Employees International Union also represents certain plaintiffs. Currently, many thousands of Puerto Rican and other Spanish-speaking Florida residents with limited English proficiency are being impeded from exercising their fundamental right to vote because elections in many parts of the state are conducted only in English.

Judge Walker found that Florida election officials cannot ignore the clear and longstanding mandate of Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act that protects Puerto Rican voters from English-only election systems. “While lost on some, Puerto Rico is part of the United States” he noted. He particularly chastised Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner who tried to shirk his responsibilities to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act and concluded that Detzner is the official that must supervise and administer the election laws of Florida -- “Not some election laws. The election laws.” -- and this included laws that require bilingual ballots. The Court stopped shy of ordering full compliance because of the deadlines facing election officials in the November elections. However, it ordered the Secretary of State to provide sample ballots in Spanish with notices of the availability of same in all the election districts of the 32 counties. “It is remarkable that it takes a coalition of voting rights organizations and individuals to sue in federal court to seek minimal compliance with the plain language of a venerable 53-year old law” Judge Walker noted.

“We are delighted that Judge Walker granted a partial preliminary injunction ordering the 32 counties and the secretary of state to comply with Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act. Every vote counts, and this order goes a long way to make sure that Puerto Rican voters educated in Puerto Rico in Spanish, who need Spanish language materials and assistance are able cast an informed vote in the 2018 Midterms. We will continue to advocate until all voting and election materials are made available in Spanish to eligible voters,” said Kira Romero-Craft, Managing Attorney for LatinoJustice PRLDEF’s Southeast Office.

“Today’s decision affirms what we have said in this case—that Puerto Rican citizens must be given full and equal access to the franchise. Individuals who are still dealing with devastating losses from Hurricane Maria should not also have to contend with discrimination at the polls,” said Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos. “The court’s order protects the right of Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican citizens to meaningfully exercise their right to vote this fall.”

“The court's opinion reaffirms the fundamental right of Puerto Ricans, like all Americans, to cast a meaningful and effective vote in a language that they understand," said Matthew Murray, Partner at Altshuler Berzon LLP.