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Judge orders Florida to protect Spanish-speakers' voting rights prior to 2020 primaries

“In today’s decision, the court recognized that Spanish-speaking voters are not second-class citizens,” a legal counsel said.
Voters Cast Ballots In The Florida Primary Election
A polling location in Miami Beach, Florida, last year.Scott McIntyre / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Advocates for Spanish-speaking voters in Florida are celebrating a significant win Friday after District Judge Mark Walker issued an order requiring 32 of the state's 67 counties to provide election materials and assistance to Spanish-speaking voters before the 2020 presidential primary.

Walker's decision comes after several civic engagement groups and individuals sued the state secretary of state and elections supervisors last year for what they say was a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for not making available bilingual voting materials and assistance to the state's growing number of Spanish speakers. They pointed in particular to Puerto Rican voters who have moved to the state after Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens; if they move to the mainland, they can register and vote in their state of residency. But many of those raised on the island primarily speak Spanish.

“The court’s order secures the fundamental right to vote for our fellow Puerto Rican-American citizens in Florida,” said Esperanza Segarra, senior counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, who represented the plaintiffs in the case along with the policy research think tank Demos.

“For democratic participation to have any meaning, voters must be able to exercise their right to vote in a language they understand,” said Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos. “In today’s decision, the court recognized that Spanish-speaking voters are not second-class citizens.”

After Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, over 56,000 Puerto Ricans relocated to Florida, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. They joined a massive wave that began in 2006 after the island’s economic crisis, boosting Florida's Puerto Rican population from 479,000 in 2000 to over 1 million in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center.

According to LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Demos, the Voting Rights Act guarantees the right to register and vote for those with limited English and specifically points out Puerto Ricans.

It states that registering to vote and voting cannot be denied to those “who have completed the 6th grade in a public school, such as those in Puerto Rico, where the predominant classroom language is a language other than English,” according to the Justice Department website.

Judge Walker had issued a similar order ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. However, the order didn’t require Florida officials to provide bilingual voting materials for future elections.

Those involved in the case are still working toward a permanent solution that guarantees voters access to Spanish-language materials in all future elections in Florida.