Case settled over lack of Spanish-language voting materials in Florida counties

·3 min read

A settlement has been reached in one of the largest lawsuits filed under the 1965 Voting Rights Act over providing Spanish-language ballots and assistance to Puerto Rican voters in 32 Florida counties.

The settlement provides for Spanish language ballots, election material, hotlines, options on websites, assistance at polls, and signs at election supervisors’ offices.

“We’re very pleased with what the settlement provides and it’s in line with the Voting Rights Act,” said Kira Romero-Craft, an attorney with Latino Justice PRLDF, which was involved in the suit.

The Rivera v. Barton lawsuit filed in 2018 by racial and voter justice organizations argued that election officials had not complied with the Voting Rights Act when they didn't provide ballots and information in Spanish to Spanish-speaking voters who had recently moved to Florida from Puerto Rico.

Related: The groups say the Voting Rights Act guarantees the right to vote to those who completed their basic schooling in a language "other than English."

Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, so they can register and vote in stateside elections when they move from the island to the mainland. Many of those raised on the island primarily speak Spanish. Over 1 million Puerto Ricans now live in Florida and an estimated 859,000 were eligible to vote in 2018.

Marta Rivera Madera, 73, was the plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I feel good and I am very pleased with the decisions they took," she said in a telephone news briefing on Monday.

Rivera Madera, 73, settled in Gainesville, in Alachua County in 2017 to be near her daughter after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico that September. When she went to vote in 2018, all the election material was in English.

“It was confusing and no one spoke Spanish," said Rivera Madera in a phone call with NBC News. "I didn’t know who to vote for and had to ask my daughter for help."

Related: "It is crucial for new arrivals from Puerto Rico and all Spanish-speaking citizens to get full access to vote, including language access."

The counties that settled the lawsuit are Alachua, Bay, Brevard, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Hernando, Highlands, Indian River, Jackson, Lake, Leon, Levy, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Monroe, Okaloosa, Okeechobee, Pasco, Putnam, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Sumter, Taylor, and Wakulla.

Only one of the 32 counties, Charlotte, opted not to be part of the settlement, which means they can be subject to further litigation.

In 2019 a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction requiring the 32 counties to take steps toward providing Spanish language ballots and assistance in time for the March 2020 presidential primary election.

“Most, if not, all the supervisors of elections were taking steps toward reaching compliance,” said Romero-Craft. “We can say that the counties we did monitor had Spanish-language signs and ballots available for the voters to use in case they needed them.”

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