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Federal judge orders 32 Florida counties to print sample ballots in Spanish for Puerto Rican voters

Voters are shown arriving to cast ballots at a polling place on August 28, 2018 in Boca Raton, Florida. (Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images)

A federal judge issued a 27-page ruling Friday that requires elections officials in 32 Florida counties to provide Spanish-language sample ballots for the November general election, according to published reports.

A coalition of voting rights advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit against the state in August, arguing that Florida Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner is failing "to protect the rights of Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans to vote stateside."

Where does it stand?

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker partially sided with plaintiffs, but indicated there is not enough time to order more extensive steps, according to reports.

The case potentially impacts more than 36,500 Puerto Ricans living in one of the 32 counties, according to reports. The figure does not include islanders who moved to the mainland after the devastating 2017 hurricane.

Since the election is less than two months away, Walker considered concerns from county elections supervisors who indicated it would be difficult to make sweeping changes at this late date.

He also stated that Defendant Detzner is Florida's chief election officer and must uphold the enforcement of election laws.

Detzner previously argued that he has no relevant power over the county supervisors of elections, the report stated.

"Puerto Ricans are American citizens," Walker stated. "Unique among Americans, they are not educated primarily in English — and do not need to be. But, like all American citizens, they possess the fundamental right to vote.

He also wrote: "Voting in a language you do not understand is like asking this Court [to] decide the winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry — ineffective, in other words. Courts have long held that the right to vote includes not only the right to physically enter a polling place and fill out a ballot but also the right to comprehend and understand what is on that ballot."

He continued: "It is remarkable that it takes a coalition of voting rights organizations and individuals to sue in federal court to seek minimal compliance with the plain language of a venerable 53-year-old law."

Walker did not address every demand. For example, he did not include provisions to have counties “create official Spanish-language ballots, absentee and early voting applications and ballots, voter registration forms or to hire certified translators,” according to NPR.

What did plaintiffs say?

Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos, one of several groups that filed the motion for the preliminary injunction, told NPR: "Today's decision affirms what we have said in this case—that Puerto Rican citizens must be given full and equal access to the franchise. Individuals who are still dealing with devastating losses from Hurricane Maria should not also have to contend with discrimination at the polls."

While the preliminary injunction is not a final ruling on the case, it suggests Walker is likely to side with the plaintiffs, according to NPR.

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