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Spanish-Language Voting Materials Under Development

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More than four million of Florida's 20 million residents speak Spanish at home, according to U.S. Census figures. Thirty-two additional counties are being ordered to provide election materials and ballots in the language. Meanwhile, the state’s 67 election officials will tackle the issue this week.

Tallahassee Federal Judge Mark Walker’s ruling expands a temporary injunction he had granted ahead of last fall's elections. This case, he wrote, is about the fundamental right to cast a ballot.  The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of Latino civic groups, as well as Puerto Ricans moving to Florida after Hurricane Maria in 2017 who say they don’t understand English very well.

Some of the 32 counties, including Escambia, got a head start on the order by providing the sample ballots in Spanish.

“What we already had done for the 2018 election cycle and learning how to do materials and a lot of the forms and whatnot that we have translated – certainly a lot of that can be useful,” said Escambia County Elections Chief David Stafford. Santa Rosa and Okaloosa are also among the counties which must provide all voter materials in Spanish by next March – eight months ahead of the presidential election.

“We haven’t gotten anything directly from the judge because we’re not a named defendant; we’re not a party to the lawsuit,” Stafford said. “We’re sort of 31 similarly situated counties in addition to Alachua and the Department of State [who] were the two main defendants.”

Fifteen counties already provide voter materials en Español, and Walker's order would raise that to almost four dozen of Florida's 67 counties. Stafford says there’s still a lot of clarification that’s needed regarding the judge’s order – aimed at complying with the federal Voting Rights Act.

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David Stafford, Escambia County Supervisor of Elections

“The judge told the Secretary of State that this is the order that you’re going to give,” said Stafford. “So technically, it came from the Sec. of State but it was basically verbatim what the judge put in his order. An integral part of all this is a rule-making process. We’ll actually have a rule-making hearing that will star to put – if you will – a little meat on the bones of what all this means.”

That process is expected to begin later this week, when the Florida Association of County Supervisors of Elections holds its annual conference in Daytona.

“A lot of us will no doubt be talking to the other counties who are already doing bilingual everything,” said Okaloosa County Supervisor Paul Lux, who is Association President. “Just to make sure that we have a clear understanding of what our obligations are going to be when it comes to everything that needs to be done in Spanish and how we accomplish that.”

Since Judge Walker issued the preliminary injunction, Lux says his office has been working to maintain its standards by producing the sample ballots in both English and Spanish, along with assisting Spanish-speakers in marking their ballots.

“Once you have done enough ballot translations – with the exceptions of constitutional amendments or other ballot initiatives – for the most part, things don’t change that you need to have done in Spanish when it comes to a ballot,” Lux said. “So once you have all the ballot instructions, that stuff will remain the same from election to election.”

At this point, Lux is not aware of any plans to appeal either the judge’s injunction or his expansion of the ruling; he adds such an action would be very limited.

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Paul Lux, Okaloosa Co. Elections Supervisor and President of the Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections.

“The 32 counties involved are not named litigants, and therefore have no opportunity to appeal his ruling,” said Lux. “So the only person who could do that would be either the Sec. of State, or the only named county which is Alachua.”

Under the order, election supervisors also must provide information in Spanish on their websites, recruit bilingual poll workers and have a bilingual hotline to assist with early voting. It appears the judge, says Lux, could be laboring under the belief that the Sec. of State can order supervisors to do certain things.

“And while the law very clearly says that the Secretary can provide us direction, it does not – where any of us can find – give them the opportunity to provide us with directives; which probably have two very different legal meanings,” said Lux. “There will be some discussion I suspect about that at our conference as well.”

Federal Judge Mark Walker praised the state's efforts to update rules expanding access to Spanish-language election materials, but added that there was no way of knowing when they would be finished.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.