TALLAHASSEE — A long-running lawsuit about providing Spanish-language ballots and election materials in 32 Florida counties is reemerging, with plaintiffs saying new state rules don’t go far enough — and Secretary of State Laurel Lee saying she shouldn’t even be part of the case.
The case, filed in 2018, centers on allegations that elections officials have not complied with part of the federal Voting Rights Act related to Spanish speakers who were educated in Puerto Rico. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in May 2019 issued a preliminary injunction that required 32 counties to take a series of steps, including providing Spanish-language ballots and materials, in time for the March 2020 presidential primary election.
At the same time, Lee, a defendant in the case, was working on new administrative rules to address the Spanish-language issue. Lee’s agency, the Florida Department of State, published the rules last month.
But in a May 8 filing, attorneys for the plaintiffs said the rules — while a “step in the right direction” — do not ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
“Plaintiffs remain ready and willing to reach agreement with the secretary (Lee) on a resolution to this litigation that ensures compliance. … If the parties cannot reach such a resolution, however, further litigation will be necessary,” attorneys for the plaintiffs, including named plaintiff Marta Valentina Rivera Madera and a coalition of groups, said in the filing.
Lee’s attorneys, however, pointed to a federal appeals-court ruling last month in a separate elections case and argued that the plaintiffs do not have legal “standing” to pursue claims against her. The ruling last month, in a case challenging a decades-old state law that dictates the order of candidates on ballots, said the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue Lee because they had not shown they were injured by the law.
In addition to arguing that the same standing issue applies to the Spanish-language ballot case, Lee’s attorneys also contended that the case is moot because of the adoption of the rules last month.
“Nevertheless, the secretary intends to work with the plaintiffs in good faith to further a shared goal of making Spanish-language voting more accessible,” Lee’s attorneys wrote in the May 8 filing, which was a joint report provided to Walker by the parties.
Walker has directed the parties to file briefs on Lee’s arguments about standing. He also noted, however, that Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton is a defendant as a representative of other supervisors, which could allow the case to move forward without Lee.
The case focuses on Puerto Rican voters and part of the federal Voting Rights Act aimed at people who were educated in schools where the predominant language was not English. It seeks to ensure they are not denied the right to vote in Florida.
While the rules published last month by the Department of State address issues such as requiring Spanish-language ballots in the 32 counties, the plaintiffs’ attorneys contended in the May 8 filing that the rules have problems that need to be addressed. For example, they said the rules do not appear to apply to special and municipal elections and do not ensure that supervisors will provide mail-in ballots and related materials in Spanish.
“Ensuring full access to vote-by-mail ballots and materials for Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican-educated citizens … has become even more critical given the current COVID-19 public health crisis and the likely vastly expanded use of, and need for, vote-by-mail ballots across Florida in upcoming elections,” the filing said.
The case targets 32 counties because other counties provide Spanish-language ballots or were not identified as having Puerto Rican populations, according to Walker’s preliminary injunction last year.
The 32 counties are Alachua, Bay, Brevard, Charlotte, 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.