Florida advocacy groups filed a federal lawsuit yesterday (August 16) demanding that elected officials provide Spanish-language voting materials and assistance, including ballots and translation support, for Latinx voters in 32 counties.
The complaint, filed by a Latinx voter and civil rights organizations in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, argues that the state is violating the voting rights of tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who arrived after Hurricane Maria. Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, counties are required to provide language assistance to non-English speaking voters, including citizens living in the U.S. who were educated in Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican schools.
Although Puerto Ricans are citizens, they can only vote on the island, not in the mainland United States. When they move to the mainland, they can register to vote and participate in U.S. elections.
Amid the island’s debt crisis, Florida’s Puerto Rican population has risen to over one million residents, the second highest on the mainland. But there’s been no surge in new voters among the Diaspora, according to The Washington Post. With midterm elections just a couple of months away, activists organizing in the 32 counties named in the lawsuit say that language access, along with disaster and economic recovery, is a major barrier.
“Voting in a new place can be intimidating for anyone, and if your first language is not English, it can be even more difficult,” said Maria Revelles, a community organizer with Faith in Florida, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, per The Washington Post.
Voting can be especially difficult in counties with few Spanish-speakers. Currently, 13 counties are required to provide bilingual materials because at least five percent of the voting population speaks Spanish, as Tampa Bay Times reports. But attorneys in the lawsuit say that’s not the case for what they project are more than 143,000 Puerto Rican voters living in 32 Florida counties where English-language ballots are the only option.
In a statement released yesterday, several Florida civil rights groups expressed support for the lawsuit and condemned the state of Florida for allowing what they say is voter disenfranchisement. From Kira Romero-Craft, managing attorney at LatinoJustice:
At a time when Puerto Rican U.S. citizens are still reeling from the damage of Hurricane Maria and the fiscal crisis on the island, and are seeking to establish community throughout Florida, we must uphold the law and provide Puerto Ricans the Spanish-language assistance and materials as required under the Voting Rights Act. Democracy is at stake here. There is no viable excuse for these Supervisors of Elections to shirk their responsibilities to ensure that all citizens are able to vote effectively in the upcoming elections, especially in a state such as Florida.