Florida officials must provide Spanish-language election materials in 32 counties with Puerto Rican populations, a federal judge ruled on Friday, granting part of what a Puerto Rican voter and several Latino advocacy groups had requested. But the judge concluded that there would not be enough time before the November elections to make other changes the plaintiffs had sought.
In a harshly worded, at times sarcastic, order, Judge Mark E. Walker of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida granted an injunction requiring Secretary of State Kenneth W. Detzner to instruct county election supervisors to provide Spanish-language sample ballots for the coming midterm elections, both online and at polling places. The order also called for Spanish-language signs at polling places to notify voters that the sample ballots are available.
But Judge Walker declined to require the counties to provide official Spanish-language ballots, accepting Florida officials’ argument that it “would be impossible, or close to impossible,” to do so in the two months remaining before the election. But he wrote that the plaintiffs had shown “a substantial likelihood of success on the merits” in their lawsuit, which seeks to require such ballots in the future.
In the meantime, the sample ballots must match the official ballots in “size, information, layout, placement and fonts,” so that Spanish-speaking voters can use them on Election Day as a guide to filling out the official English-language ballot, the ruling said.
Judge Walker, who was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2012, has repeatedly tussled with the Scott administration, especially in voting rights cases. And in his order on Friday, he made his exasperation clear from his very first words.
“Here we are again,” he wrote. “The clock hits 6 a.m. Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’ starts playing. Denizens of and visitors to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania eagerly await the groundhog’s prediction. And the state of Florida is alleged to violate federal law in its handling of elections.”
Esperanza Segarra, senior counsel at Latino Justice, which filed the lawsuit, called it “a good ruling.”
“It’s going to help many of the Puerto Rican citizens in Florida to cast their votes,” Ms. Segarra said. “The limited relief that we received, it’s still a positive start, and there’s no limitation for future relief in future elections.”
The Florida State Department will instruct county election supervisors to comply with the order, a spokeswoman, Sarah Revell, said.
“Florida is the world’s greatest melting pot, and we don’t want any registered voters to not be able to exercise their right because of a language barrier,” John Tupps, Gov. Rick Scott’s communications director, said in a statement. “Federal law determines which counties are required to provide ballots in Spanish, and the Florida Department of State provides voting materials in English and Spanish. We are glad that more counties will do what we are already doing at the state level.”
Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits the government from disenfranchising a voter “because of his inability to read, write, understand or interpret any matter in the English language” if that voter attended a school — in Puerto Rico, for example — “in which the predominant classroom language was other than English.” This provision was written specifically to protect the voting rights of Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens.
“Voting in a language you do not understand is like asking this court to decide the winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry — ineffective, in other words,” Judge Walker wrote. “Courts have long held that the right to vote includes not only the right to physically enter a polling place and fill out a ballot but also the right to comprehend and understand what is on that ballot.”
Fifteen of Florida’s 67 counties already provide Spanish-language ballots. Of the remaining 52 counties, 32 have Puerto Rican populations, and the lawsuit applies only to those 32 counties.
In 27 acerbic pages, Judge Walker said that Mr. Detzner had “predictably” tried “to evade federal jurisdiction” and that the court had reiterated his obligations “with tiresome regularity.” He declared it “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.”
Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.