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By Maria Revelles, Faith in Florida

After years of violating the federal Voting Rights Act by providing English-only election ballots, thus denying voting rights to Puerto Ricans who attended schools where the predominant classroom language was not English, 32 of Florida’s 67 counties will now provide official election materials in Spanish.

The change did not come about because leaders of the counties were suddenly hit with pangs of social conscience. It happened because Faith in Florida, the faith- based social justice organization where I serve as deputy director, and others went to court to force the counties to comply with the law. We are now working to make sure that the new rules being written by the Florida secretary of state comply with the Voting Rights Act.

Under the recent court order issued by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Mark Walker, the counties must provide, beginning with the 2020 primary elections, official paper or electronic ballots, including early voting and vote-by-mail ballots in Spanish. The counties also will have Spanish-language voter registration cards, applications, voter instructions, guides, polling place changes, sample ballots and other election materials.

“Compliance with this order is not optional,” the judge ordered the counties, where more than 30,000 Puerto Ricans live.

Among them is one of the plaintiffs in the case, Marta Valentina Rivera Madera, a resident of Alachua County, who attended elementary through high school in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in which the predominant classroom language was Spanish. As a result, Spanish is her primary language and she cannot read, speak or understand English well.

While the court decision was a great victory for voting rights advocates, we cannot let our guard down, particularly as the rules for Spanish language materials are being written by state officials.

For example, we are urging the secretary of state’s rules to require a toll-free, county-specific, Spanish-language hotline with at least one bilingual employee for the purpose of translating or assisting Spanish-language voters during all early voting hours, hours when polls are open, and all business hours. We also have suggested that the new rules require the availability of Spanish-language hotline assistance at each polling place, and that the county’s Spanish-language hotline number and the state’s Spanish-language hotline number be visibly displayed.

These changes are long overdue. Puerto Ricans are American citizens and we, as faith leaders, continue to advocate for those who were displaced by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Now that they are living and voting in Florida, it is important that they have access to Spanish language information and ballots so that they can vote and make informed decisions.

Maria Revelles is the deputy director of the faith-based social justice organizing group Faith in Florida.

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