Judge Orders Florida Election Officials to Offer Ballots Printed in Spanish

An information sign, also in Spanish, sits on the table as people wait to cast their ballots at the Takoma Park Middle School, in Takoma Park, Md., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

A federal judge ruled on Friday that Florida Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner must provide polling places with election ballots printed in Spanish, reports state.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that the state must comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and provide the Spanish-language voting ballots after thousands of Puerto Rican natives moved to the Sunshine State in the wake of Hurricane Maria, NPR reports.

“As this Court notes with tiresome regularity,” the judge scolded, “Defendant Detzner is Florida’s ‘chief election officer'” and must enforce election laws. The judge added, “There is no asterisk after the provision stating ‘except for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.'”

The secretary of state had made the argument that he has no relevant power to force county election supervisors to act.

The Barack Obama-appointed judge ordered that 32 of Florida’s 67 counties must have the Spanish-language ballots on hand in the coming general election. He also ordered that Spanish-speaking voters be made aware that the ballots are on hand for their use and said signage and election notices in Spanish must be added to those posted in English on county election websites.

However, Walker stopped short of ordering there to be Spanish-speaking aides on hand to show potential voters how to use the ballots as well as signage and election notices in Spanish because the burden on local officials would be too great this soon before the elections.

Walker reminded the court that “Puerto Ricans are American citizens” who still have a “fundamental right to vote.” He also made the odd analogy that “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,” Walker insisted in his ruling.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s office praised the decision, saying, “Florida is the world’s greatest melting pot, and we don’t want any registered voters to not be able to exercise their right because of a language barrier. … We are glad that more counties will do what we are already doing at the state level.”

Walker’s sarcasm was evident against the purported effort of the Florida secretary of state to muddle election law.

The liberal judge acrimoniously referred to the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day in which Murray’s character lives the same day over and over again.

“Here we are again. The clock hits 6:00 a.m. Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’ starts playing. Denizens of and visitors to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania eagerly await the groundhog’s prediction. And the state of Florida is alleged to violate federal law in its handling of elections,” Walker wrote, adding, “Phil Connors, portrayed by Bill Murray, experienced a similar phenomenon.”

Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.

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