Civil rights advocates are reminding Spanish-speaking voters living in 32 Florida counties that they have the right to access election materials and assistance in their native language before the state's primary on March 17.
Florida's secretary of state as well as officials in Manatee County, Sarasota County and 30 other Florida counties are required to grant these services on Election Day. This follows a federal judge's ruling last year that determined the state was in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for not making bilingual voting materials and assistance available to the state's growing number of Spanish speakers — in particular, Puerto Rican voters who have moved from the island.
Puerto Ricans are born with U.S. citizenship; once they move to the mainland they can register and vote in stateside elections. But many of those who were raised on the island speak primarily Spanish.
It's estimated that over 50,000 Puerto Ricans moved to Florida after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in September 2017. They joined a massive wave that began in 2006 following 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.
"In this incredibly important election year, it is crucial for new arrivals from Puerto Rico and all Spanish-speaking citizens to get full access to vote, including language access," said Maria Revelles, the Florida state director for the civic engagement group Vamos 4 Puerto Rico, during a press conference Thursday in Orlando.
"Puerto Ricans now in Florida who have been forced out of the island due to the public debt crisis, damages from Hurricane Maria and recent earthquakes, should be able to take this vital opportunity at the ballot box in the language that they best understand," she said, adding that they will do everything possible "to make sure every eligible voter in Florida is able to exercise their right to vote."
"We will be vigilant about the ballots and we will be spreading the message to make sure that every, every citizen will be able to vote in equal conditions," said Revelles.
Ricardo Negrón-Almódovar, a legal services coordinator at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, who represented plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the 32 Florida counties, said voters participating in next week's presidential primary should "be on the lookout for Spanish ballots, either a bilingual ballot or separate Spanish and English ballots." (The state has 67 counties.)
Voters should also be on the lookout for signs that can direct them to poll workers able to assist them in Spanish, he added.
Yanidsi Vélez, the senior director of programs and policy at the Hispanic Federation Southeast region, pointed out during the press conference that "the Florida Secretary of State has not published the final rules that establish the procedures to which we must remain vigilant," she said in Spanish.
"It is important to ensure that the state complies with this decision of the court and, above all, that we protect Puerto Rican's right to vote in this state," Vélez said. "It is not an option. It is the law."
The office of Florida Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee told NBC News in a statement Friday that the state's governor directed them "to initiate rulemaking to address the availability of Spanish-language ballots and Spanish-language voter assistance for the 2020 elections and all future elections" across all counties "to ensure uniformity and access across the state," adding they're working with Supervisors of Elections and advocacy groups on the matter.
However, they "anticipate the rule will be effective after the Presidential Preference Primary."
But the federal judge's ruling "is clear and is in effect," said Kira Romero-Craft, an attorney at LatinoJustice PRLDEF.
"It requires Spanish language ballots, materials, and assistance during the primary; and the 32 supervisors of elections have all told the court they are complying, so Spanish-speaking voters across those counties should go out and vote and make their voices heard. We are monitoring implementation of the court’s order to ensure every voter can participate," she added.