A Puerto Rican woman who moved to Gainesville after Hurricane Maria is suing the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections, alleging voting materials for the upcoming election aren’t in Spanish.
A complaint filed on behalf of Marta Valentina Rivera Madera, 70, on Thursday said she couldn’t register to vote in the Nov. 6 election without the help of her daughter because the form was in English. Four voting rights advocacy groups are taking up her case, saying Alachua Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton is in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act for not providing bilingual voting materials.
Like many Puerto Ricans who moved to the mainland post-Maria, Rivera Madera attended Spanish-speaking schools on the island and does not speak, read or write in English, said Stuart Naifeh, senior council at one of the advocacy firms, Demos.
Naifeh said Puerto Ricans are American citizens by birth and entitled to Spanish-language election material under federal law.
Rivera Madera used to vote in Spanish in Puerto Rico, she said in a press release.
“I take voting very seriously and have always educated myself about the candidates and issues before casting my ballot,” Rivera Madera said. “But here in Gainesville, I can only get information in English.”
The lawsuit, which was also filed against Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, is seeking class-action status to file the same suit against election supervisors in 31 other counties for allegedly not providing Spanish materials. The suit includes Marion, Levy, Putnam, Clay and Columbia.
The goal is for a judge to order the 32 counties to provide Spanish-language election materials, from ballots to voter guides, by the 2018 election and for all subsequent elections, Naifeh said.
About 30,000 non-English speaking Puerto Ricans live in the 32 counties as of 2015, according to the complaint.
“It adds insult to injury for people who fled Puerto Rico as a result of hurricane damage only to be met with discrimination at the polling place,” he said.
Before suing, the group sent letters to 13 of the 32 counties on April 3 urging them to provide bilingual materials, citing the Voting Rights Act.
Barton wrote back a week later that her office would review the number of voters educated in non-English American schools but said she wasn’t “aware of any significant number” in the county.
When Demos replied two months later with numbers of Puerto Rican voters in Alachua County, Barton didn’t respond, Naifeh said.
In the letter, Naifeh said as of July 2016, there were about 1,084 registered voters in Alachua County who reported they were born in Puerto Rico, according to the Florida Secretary of State Office. He said the older numbers show the department’s obligation even before the hurricane.
Barton released a statement to The Alligator through TJ Pyche, her office’s spokesperson, saying she was reviewing the case with attorneys.
Bob Swain, the senior assistant county attorney representing Barton, said the federal requirements doesn’t specify what type of bilingual support will be offered by the elections offices.
The elections office discusses implementing bilingual ballots every election cycle but hasn’t because the demographic of Spanish-speaking voters is not large enough, Pyche said. He is unaware of any complaints from non-English speaking voters about the ballots.
As of 2016, about 13.3 percent of Alachua County speaks a non-English language, according to census data.
“It’s something that we’re constantly reviewing and checking the demographics of the county to determine if we’re going to do that,” he said.
Will Boyett, the Chief Deputy Supervisor of Elections, said the Census Bureau notifies the county every five years if there is a group of non-English voters that meets certain criteria. As of December 2016, the bureau has not notified the county that there are 10,000 voting-age Spanish speakers or that voting-age Spanish speakers make up 5% of the voting population, he said.
While polling place signage, constitutional amendment wording, voter registration forms and vote-by-mail instructions are available Spanish, ballots are only in English.
Spanish-speaking workers are available in some voting locations every election, and the elections office has a bilingual staff member, Pyche said. About 10 bilingual poll workers will be available during the November elections.
A lack of bilingual ballots has been an issue before the hurricane made landfall, Naifeh said.
“This is not just about the hurricane,” he said. “It’s about the law and the people who already lived in these places who didn't have the voting materials they were entitled to.”