As the midterm elections approach, civic engagement groups Faith in Florida, Hispanic Federation, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, UnidosUS, and Vamos4PR, and individual voter Marta Rivera have filed suit against Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner and the Supervisors of Elections of 32 Florida counties who, they claim, are in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965’s requirement to provide bilingual voting materials and assistance, including ballots and poll worker support, for Puerto Rican-educated, Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens. The plaintiffs are represented by Demos, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and the law firm of Altshuler Berzon LLP. Service Employees International Union also represents certain plaintiffs. The suit alleges that thousands of Puerto Rican and other Spanish-speaking Florida residents with limited English proficiency are being impeded from exercising their fundamental right to vote because elections in many parts of the state are conducted only in English.
The individual voter who has filed suit, Marta Rivera, like thousands of her fellow Puerto Ricans, fled the devastation of Hurricane Maria and sought sanctuary in the Gainesville (FL) area to be close to her daughter. Until that move just before her 70th birthday, Ms. Rivera had lived all of her life in Puerto Rico and her classroom instruction had been almost entirely in Spanish.
With the help of her daughter, Ms. Rivera registered to vote in Alachua County, Florida, but to exercise her right to vote in November, she will have to navigate an election and voting process that is entirely in English. The County does not offer bilingual ballots and does not provide information about the candidates, the offices they are running for, or local ballot initiatives in Spanish. As a result, Ms. Rivera is concerned that she will not be able to uphold her civic duty and cast an informed ballot in November.
“I am looking forward to exercising my right to vote as I always have in Puerto Rico,” said Ms. Rivera. “I want to be able to vote in the language I speak best because I take voting very seriously and have always educated myself about the candidates and issues before casting my ballot. But here in Gainesville, I can only get information in English.”
Under federal law, persons born in Puerto Rico after 1899 are U.S. citizens by birth, and, like other citizens, they are free to reside wherever they like in the U.S. and are entitled to vote where they reside. Federal and Puerto Rico law also permits primary and secondary education in Puerto Rico to be conducted in Spanish. In 1965, recognizing that many Puerto Ricans who were literate only in Spanish had emigrated from the island to the continental U.S. where they faced discrimination at the polls due to elections being conducted entirely in English, Congress included Section 4(e) in the Voting Rights Act to prohibit states from making an ability to speak English a condition of voting.
In recent years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the Department of Justice regularly enforced Section 4(e) as part of its mandate to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws.
“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,” said Kira Romero-Craft, managing attorney at LatinoJustice’s Orlando office. “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.”
Florida has the second highest Puerto Rican population of any U.S. state, and is home to hundreds of thousands of citizens of Puerto Rican heritage. Their number increased dramatically after Hurricane Maria brought a new wave of Puerto Ricans to the state, the vast majority of whom have a limited ability to speak or understand English. Despite the requirements of Section 4(e), many Florida counties continue to conduct their elections entirely in English.
“It is reprehensible that counties in Florida are allowing discriminatory voting policies to deprive Puerto Rican U.S. citizens of a voice in our democracy, and it is equally reprehensible that the DOJ is missing in action here,” said Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos. “Forcing Spanish-speaking voters to vote in a language they don’t understand denies them a meaningful opportunity to be heard and undermines the integrity of our elections. The Department of Justice used to agree with this common-sense proposition and didn’t hesitate to act when states were violating the Voting Rights Act.”
The lawsuit seeks certification as a class action on behalf of all Puerto Rican voters residing in counties with large Puerto Rican populations and English-only elections. It is one of the largest suits ever brought under Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act, the provision prohibiting language-based discrimination against Puerto Rican voters.
“Today’s suit is a step towards making sure that all voters are able to make their voices heard,” said Monica Russo, President of SEIU Florida, on behalf of SEIU. “To assume Florida only needs a monolingual ballot is to presume all Floridians only speak one language: English. Our state is the definition of a melting pot, and citizens who grew up in Puerto Rico and now reside in Florida should not be disenfranchised by ballots they cannot understand. We must be vigilant and hold our elected officials accountable to ensure that no voter experiences disenfranchisement when they go to vote. Period.”
“Our democracy works best when every American citizen participates in the democratic process by casting a vote. Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act was specifically intended to protect the right to vote of Puerto Ricans educated in Spanish who have moved stateside,” said Matthew Murray of Altshuler Berzon LLP.
In April, Demo and atinoJustice/PRLDEF sent letters to supervisors of elections in 13 counties urging them to provide bilingual voting materials to the increasing number of Puerto Ricans who are now living in Florida.
“Puerto Ricans live all over Florida, not just in a few counties that have bilingual elections,” said Nancy Batista, Florida state director for Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, one of the plaintiffs involved in the earlier effort. “Today’s lawsuit will go a long way toward making sure they are treated as full and equal citizens wherever they may live in the state.”
“VAMOS4PR has been working to educate and mobilize recent arrivals to Florida from Puerto Rico about the voting process because as residents of a U.S. state outside the island, they have increased power to make their voices heard on state and federal matters through their vote,” said Carmen Torres, a member of VAMOS4PR’s steering committee. “For recent arrivals from Puerto Rico and many others, not having access to ballots and information in their primary language effectively denies them their fundamental rights.”
“Casting a vote is the most basic right of any democratic society. Denying anyone this right is wholly unacceptable anywhere in our country, and that goes even more so for those who communities that have endured a long history of voter suppression – like Spanish-speaking Latinos and other people of color in the state of Florida. We are particularly concerned about the right of Puerto Ricans who have settled in Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to vote in the language of their own preference. These recent arrivals to the state must be afforded every opportunity to exercise their right to vote on the mainland,” said José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District court in Gainesville, asks the court to order the counties to translate their voting materials in time for the November 6, 2018 mid-term election and to order the Secretary of State to ensure that the counties comply.
Under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, a jurisdiction must provide voter information in a minority language where the number of U.S. citizens of voting age of a single language group within the jurisdiction is more than 10,000, or is more than 5% of all voting age citizens, or on an Indian reservation, exceeds 5% of all reservation residents; and the illiteracy rate of the group is higher than the national illiteracy rate.
According to the Pew Research Center, the Puerto Rican population in Florida grew from 479,000 in 2000 to over a million in 2015.