A federal judge ordered nearly three dozen counties in Florida to provide ballots in Spanish ahead of the 2020 election, calling the issue a “fundamental right” for the state’s voters.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker expanded an earlier injunction on Friday, requiring 32 additional counties to provide the Spanish-language ballots by March 2020, the start of the state’s presidential primaries.
The decision arose from a lawsuit filed by the groups LatinoJustice, Demos and other voting rights organizations that said up to 30,000 Puerto Ricans living in Florida faced unlawful hardship casting a ballot because of language barriers.
The groups argued that the lack of Spanish-language material was a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“In today’s decision, the court recognized that Spanish-speaking voters are not second-class citizens and should not have to wait for their voting rights to be fully protected,” Stuart Naifeh, a senior counsel at Demos, said in a statement. “For democratic participation to have any meaning, voters must be able to exercise their right to vote in a language they understand.”
The Orlando Sentinel notes that most counties in Florida provide support for voters in Spanish, including phone assistance and language-specific sample ballots or registration materials, but the plaintiffs argued that wasn’t enough.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last month ordered the state to begin expanding access to voting booths to Spanish speakers as the suit was making its way through the court system.
“It is critically important that Spanish-speaking Floridians are able to exercise their right to vote without any language barriers,” DeSantis said in a statement last month. “These fellow citizens should be able to fully participate in our democracy, which is why I am directing the Department of State to address voting accessibility issues for Florida’s Spanish-speaking community statewide.”
While Walker praised DeSantis’ move, the judge said it was premature to determine if the governor’s efforts would provide appropriate access in line with the Voting Rights Act and that an injunction was necessary to protect any election that happens before such rules go into effect. The judge issued an early injunction last year ahead of the 2018 election, but that ruling only mandated that sample ballots be printed for Spanish speakers.
“This case is about the fundamental right to cast an effective ballot,” Walker wrote. “Compliance with this Order is not optional. While the vast majority of supervisors of election are upstanding professionals who follow the law and court orders, do difficult but necessary work under tight timelines, and are often subjects of multiple bouts of litigation, there may be some who selectively interpret parts of this Court’s orders or otherwise avoid compliance. This Court will not hesitate to use every tool the law provides to enforce this Order.”
Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens, relocated to Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.