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Florida lawsuit seeks Spanish translation of ballots, alleges voting rights violations affecting Puerto Ricans

A Miami-Dade election support specialist checks voting machines for accuracy at the Miami-Dade Election Department headquarters in Doral, Fla.
A Miami-Dade election support specialist checks voting machines for accuracy at the Miami-Dade Election Department headquarters in Doral, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Civil rights organizations have asked a federal judge to order the state of Florida and local election officials to provide Spanish-language ballots, literature and translators for voters of Latino descent in time for the midterm election.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, a coalition of nonpartisan groups argue that Florida’s secretary of state and local officials are violating the voting rights of Puerto Ricans, tens of thousands of whom moved to the state in the past year after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The groups have spent months trying to work with local election officials in 32 counties to provide language services to Spanish-speaking residents.

Political and community leaders have long speculated about the effect Puerto Ricans — with more than 1 million residing in Florida — could have on elections. But data shows that the registration rate among the diaspora has been low, and activists are struggling to translate island politics into mainland politics for a population reeling from disaster and economic strife.

Language, activists say, is a big part of the problem.

“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, a nonpartisan, faith-based advocacy organization.

Kira Romero-Craft, a lawyer with LatinoJustice, said the Voting Rights Act has long required local election officials to provide language services. In established Latino enclaves in central and south Florida, voters have access to materials in their preferred language, but in outlying counties with smaller but significant numbers of Spanish-speaking residents, they are less prevalent, if not completely absent.

Using 2015 census data, lawyers estimate there are more than 143,000 voting-age citizens of Puerto Rican descent living in places such as Brevard and Manatee counties.

“This is not a new law; it’s been in place since 1965,” Romero-Craft said. “It’s not something that should take anyone by surprise. If they are following federal and state law, there is no reason why they can’t do what we are asking them to do.”

The lawsuit is targeting those communities because of voters like Marta Rivera Madera, a resident of Alachua County in Florida’s Panhandle, who was raised and educated in Spanish on the island and does not speak, read or write English well.

But she intends to vote on Nov. 6 in Florida, where several races are hotly contested, including the Senate contest between Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and Gov. Rick Scott (R).

Both candidates have been courting Puerto Rican voters — about 40,000 of whom arrived after the hurricane — making repeated trips to the island and advocating for resources on behalf of the U.S. territory’s residents and evacuees.

A recent survey commissioned by the nonpartisan Hispanic Federation and others found that Nelson held a slight edge over Scott among a sample of Latino voters. Groups such as the federation — a party to the lawsuit — have programs that register and educate voters in Spanish.

Getting recently arrived Puerto Ricans to harness their experience with disaster into electoral power in a crucial swing state will take more than translating ballots into Spanish, advocates say.

The key, they say, is education and helping them make the connection between their vote and the current struggles Puerto Ricans are facing in finding jobs, affordable housing and the resources that will help them on the mainland.

“The reality is that when you are remaking your life, voting may be the last thing you consider,” Romero-Craft said. “We are trying to remove at least one of those challenges.”