Amid a federal court battle involving 32 counties, Gov. Ron DeSantis is directing the state’s elections chief to address Spanish-language ballots and voter assistance at polling places.
Secretary of State Laurel Lee will begin the process to standardize the practice of offering ballots in Spanish in Florida’s 67 counties. In a prepared statement, the Governor said it’s critical to remove language barriers from the right to vote. According to the Governor’s office, 46 counties have different rules for voters who speak other languages.
“I’d suspect here in the coming days and week’s we’ll hopefully get a little more detail on what exactly it means,” said David Stafford, elections supervisor in Escambia County,
Escambia is one of the 32 named in a lawsuit – along with Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties – in the more narrow issue of Spanish-language assistance for voters of Puerto Rican descent. That litigation began before the 2018 election cycle.
“And that resulted in us having to produce Spanish-language sample ballots, establish a hotline, and all other kinds of activities pursuant to an order from the court that came through the Sec. of State,” said Stafford. “Litigation’s ongoing, others may have been tipped off to this, but this came out of left field more me.”
Meanwhile, a coalition of groups is asking Tallahassee Federal Judge Mark Walker for a preliminary injunction, requiring Spanish-language ballots and election materials for elections starting August first in the 32 counties. Last September, Walker ordered sample ballots in Spanish, but not actual ballots and other help, saying there wasn’t enough time before the November election.
Stafford says expanding ballots for a second language is a huge investment in time, paper and ink.
“At least where it’s in practice in other places, you don’t have an English-language and then a separate Spanish-language ballot; it’s all contained in a single ballot,” Stafford said. “So you can imagine if everything’s got to be repeated in another language that takes up additional real estate. The only time we’ve – at least in my tenure – had a two-page ballot is back in 2012. That when they had a flurry of constitutional amendments.”
The ballots are even larger in counties such as Broward and Miami-Dade, where they’re printed in three languages – English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole.
In Santa Rosa County there are no formal records kept for the number of Spanish-speaking residents. But Elections Supervisor Tappie Villane says people can voluntarily identify themselves as Hispanic when registering to vote.
“We do have a little over 3,000 registered voters who have identified themselves as Hispanic in Santa Rosa County,” says Villane. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that they speak Spanish.”
If all 67 counties must begin providing official ballots in Spanish at some point, Villane says quite obviously, the staging an election will become more expensive.
“One thing that we will need to look at is, will the Spanish ballot be a stand-alone ballot, or will be a ballot that will have Spanish in addition to English?” said Villane.
To help get ready just in case, Santa Rosa and other counties are working with counties that already use bilingual – and as mentioned, trilingual – ballots. Villane concurs that there wasn’t time to produce official ballots for the 2018 election.
“I believe there’s [sic] 13 counties that currently provide ballots in different languages; we reached out to those counties when we were actually were tasked with doing the Spanish sample ballot,” Villane said. “We have to send ballots to military and overseas voters 45 days prior to the election. Those ballots had to go out by the end of September.”
Escambia County’s David Stafford says expanding a ballot to accommodate both Spanish and English would introduce what he calls “another layer of complexity to the process.” And he adds, for now, everyone is in “wait-and-see” mode.
“I know that the state has made a filing to try to put the lawsuit on hold while this rulemaking takes place,” Stafford says. “I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of additional activity and a lot of analysis on what exactly this means in the coming days and weeks. So at this point, it’s still very new, and so, we’ll kind of roll with it.”
On the bright side, Santa Rosa’s Tappie Villane says the rules process gives county election offices plenty of input.
“Supervisors [and] our association, I’m sure will be very active in this,” Villane said. “It gives us a voice, and what we think will work and what we think won’t work.”
“So we will see how this moves forward.”