Settlement Reached In Spanish-Language Ballot Fight

Ending a legal battle that started before the 2018 elections, a federal judge on Monday approved a settlement in which 31 counties agreed to take steps to provide Spanish-language ballots and other materials to voters.

The settlement, approved by Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, calls for the counties to provide Spanish-language ballots and vote-by-mail applications, translations of elections websites and access to Spanish-language hotlines for voter assistance.

The case centered on allegations that elections officials in the counties had not complied with part of the federal Voting Rights Act related to Spanish speakers who were educated in Puerto Rico.

The counties 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. Charlotte County also was a defendant in the case but did not sign on to the settlement, according to court documents.

The settlement, filed at the court on Monday, is slated to remain in effect through 2030.

Walker in 2019 issued a preliminary injunction requiring the 32 counties to take a series of steps, including providing Spanish-language ballots, in time for the March 2020 presidential primary election.

The case targeted the 32 counties because other counties provided Spanish-language ballots or were not identified as having Puerto Rican populations, according to Walker’s preliminary injunction.

The lawsuit, filed in 2018, included Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton as defendants. But following a federal appeals-court ruling in a separate elections case, Walker granted Lee’s request to be dismissed from the lawsuit, deciding that plaintiffs lacked “standing” to pursue claims against her.

Amid the litigation, Lee established new rules affecting Spanish-speaking Floridians who were educated in Puerto Rico. But plaintiffs, including Marta Valentina Rivera Madera and a coalition of groups, argued that the rules don’t go far enough to ensure such voters have access to Spanish-language ballots.

Barton, who has been a representative of supervisors of elections in the 32 counties, in September asked Walker to dismiss the case, arguing that she was complying with the preliminary injunction in addition to following the new rules.

But Walker allowed the case to move forward.

Under the settlement, supervisors in the 31 counties agreed to provide access to a “county-specific hotline to assist Spanish-speaking voters” during all early voting hours, all hours when voting takes place on Election Day and all hours after Election Day in which voters can “cure” ballot deficiencies.