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After Flawless Cycles, Florida Ballots To Stay Bilingual

This story originally aired on Feb. 9, 2021.

Ending a legal battle that started before the 2018 elections, a Tallahassee federal judge has approved a settlement in which 31 counties agree to take steps to provide Spanish-language ballots and other voting materials.

Approved by Tallahassee Federal Judge Mark Walker, the settlement calls for the counties to provide – en Español – ballots, vote-by-mail apps, translations of elections websites, and voter assistance hotlines.

Three of those counties are, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa and Escambia, the latter where David Stafford is Elections Supervisor.

“It was fully expected; [the] plaintiffs in the proposed defendant class had been in negotiations for some time,” said Stafford. “The terms of the agreement were reached a couple of weeks ago, so this was more of a formality than anything else. But it’s good to have it behind us, so we can move forward.”

Filed in 2018, the case focused on allegations that county elections officials had not complied with part of the federal Voting Rights Act related to Spanish-speakers who were educated in Puerto Rico.

A 32nd county — Charlotte — also was a defendant but did not sign on to the settlement according to court documents.

How much extra work does this mean for Stafford’s office, and the other 65 supervisors? In his case, almost none.

“We have basically complied with all of the terms of the settlement, prior to the 2020 election cycle,” said Stafford. “There’s a lot of complexities, procedural and otherwise. but ultimately it led to our adopting a series of bilingual provisions to include ballots.”

Stafford says the 2020 election cycle went very smoothly, in part because they had a bit of a dress rehearsal two years before by implementing signage and some bilingual materials. The biggest hurdle last year, he says, was the ballot itself.

“It wasn’t as much of a challenge in the [state] primary and the presidential primary because those were just a single card; what changed was the general election, when we moved from a one-page ballot to a two-page ballot,” Stafford said. “But, at the end of the day we were able to implement it without too much difficulty, other than some increased costs.”

David Stafford, Escambia Co. Elections Supervisor.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
David Stafford, Escambia Co. Elections Supervisor.

Staying on the subject of cost, an assistant Escambia County attorney handled the case for the elections office, at no additional price. Stafford was asked if the suit opens the door for groups to get ballots in other languages – such as Creole. He points to provisions in the Voting Rights Act, such as Section 203.

“If the Census says you have enough residents of your county that speak a different language, there’s a threshold,” said Stafford. “And if you meet that threshold you’re on the hook and here’s a series of things you have to do. That’s how counties like Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach and Broward have had bilingual requirements for some time.”

Then there’s a lesser-known provision — Section 4-E –that covers American citizens attending U.S. schools where English is not the official language.

“In Florida, that obviously impacts those of Puerto Rican descent; so it’s a very specific and very unique section,” said Stafford. “So I don’t know if it’s got applicability outside of this type of plaintiff.”

The settlement is scheduled to remain in effect through 2030.

Copyright 2021 WUWF

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.