Judge Refuses to Dismiss Voting Rights Case Brought By Puerto Ricans Against Volusia County
August, 25, 2009
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A decision by a Federal Court in Florida may force several counties throughout Florida to provide Spanish language assistance to voters.
If upheld at trial, any Florida county with a large number of Puerto Ricans not already required could be forced to provide Spanish language ballots and Spanish assistance to voters who feel they need help to participate in elections. The judge in Volusia County ruled that private citizens could sue to enforce provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
The case was brought by LatinoJustice PRLDEF on behalf of five Puerto Rican voters who claimed that under the Voting Rights Act they were entitled to language assistance. A little used section of the Act provides that people educated in an American-flag school in which the language of instruction is not English cannot be denied the vote because they do not read or write English. The courts have interpreted this to mean that such individuals should receive Spanish-language assistance.
United States District Court Judge John Antoon II ruled that Volusia County could be forced to translate ballot materials and provide Spanish-language assistance to voters who need it.
“This is an important case that could very well impact many counties throughout Florida and the United States,” said Cesar Perales, LatinoJustice PRLDEF President and General Counsel. “We believe the law is clear that the county is required to provide assistance to these people.”
Counties in Florida with large general Hispanic populations are already required under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act to provide language assistance during elections. Broward and Miami-Dade counties fall under this provision and provide Spanish language assistance during elections.
But under a separate provision, counties with smaller Hispanic populations (like Volusia, Duval, Lee, Seminole, Pinellas and Polk) could also be forced provide Spanish language assistance if they have Puerto Rican residents who need language assistance. Section 4E of the Voting Rights Act has been interpretated to require that voters educated in an American-flag school in which the language of instruction is not English be given the right to Spanish language voting assistance.
The lawsuit alleges that when the plaintiffs attempted to vote in Volusia County on Nov. 4, 2009, they “were denied Spanish language ballots and appropriate Spanish language assistance to ensure they were able to cast their vote effectively…”
The plaintiffs are Crimilda Perez-Santiago, Joel Robles, Carmen Fortis, Edwin Fortis and Madelyn Perez.
“These clients were simply denied the chance to vote in an historic election,” said Diana Sen, an Associate Attorney with LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “Their opportunity to cast meaningful votes was taken away from them.”
The United States Department of Justice filed court documents supporting the rights of Latinos to a 4E claim.