A federal judge in Florida has ordered Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner to mandate that local election officials comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by providing sample ballots in Spanish. Plaintiffs asked for the materials because many people moved from Puerto Rico to Florida after Hurricane Maria and hope to cast ballots in the November general elections.
In a scathing ruling on Friday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote, "As this Court notes with tiresome regularity, Defendant Detzner is Florida's 'chief election officer' " and must therefore ensure the enforcement of election laws, adding that "There is no asterisk after the provision stating 'except for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.' "
Detzner had argued that he has no relevant power over the county supervisors of elections.
Walker issued an expedited injunction compelling 32 counties across the state to provide eligible voters with Spanish-language sample ballots that are identical to the English-language official ballots and that can be used to mark the official ballots. He also required that they take steps to make Spanish-speaking voters aware that these ballots will be available and how to use them. Finally, he ordered local election officials to post Spanish signs and notices on their websites.
The judge minced no words and repeatedly hammered Detzner.
"Puerto Ricans are American citizens," Walker reminded Detzner. "Unique among Americans, they are not educated primarily in English — and do not need to be. But, like all American citizens, they possess the fundamental right to vote. ... Under the plain language of the Voting Rights Act, they must" be provided assistance to vote, he said.
"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," 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."
"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," he added.
But he stopped short of ordering the counties to create official Spanish-language ballots, absentee and early voting applications and ballots or voter registration forms or to hire certified translators, among other demands. Walker wrote that doing so "would place significant hardships on election administrators" with so little time before the general election.
"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, one of several groups that filed the motion for the preliminary injunction.
The coalition of voting rights advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit against the state in August, arguing Detzner is failing "to protect the rights of Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans to vote stateside."
While the preliminary injunction is not a final ruling on the case, it does indicate that Walker is likely to side with the plaintiffs.
More than 36,500 Puerto Ricans live in one of the 32 counties at issue in the case, according to testimony included in the court documents. However, Walker noted, that estimate does not include the wave of islanders who moved to the mainland after the devastating 2017 hurricane.
Following the ruling, Detzner's office told NPR, "The Department will advise the locally elected Supervisors of Elections to comply."
Gov. Rick Scott's office suggested that all of the counties that should be in compliance already are.
"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," John Tupps, the governor's communications director, told NPR in an emailed statement.
"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. ... We are glad that more counties will do what we are already doing at the state level," Tupps added.
Walker's decision was the latest ruling against Detzner in a string of lawsuits about election-related issues, and in Friday's ruling, he appeared to air some frustration about the déjà vu nature of the case by beginning the order with a reference to the movie Groundhog Day.
"Here we are again. The clock hits 6:00 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," he wrote, including a footnote that reads, "Phil Connors, portrayed by Bill Murray, experienced a similar phenomenon."