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Spanish Language Ballot Dispute Continues, Secretary Of State Dropped As Defendant

Laurel Lee
State of Florida
Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee

A federal judge on Friday dismissed Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee from a long-running dispute about providing Spanish-language ballots and voting materials in 32 counties, but he allowed the case to move forward.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker granted Lee’s request to be dismissed from the lawsuit, which 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.

Walker last year issued a preliminary injunction ordering Lee to require 32 counties to take a series of steps, including providing Spanish-language ballots and materials, in time for the March 2020 presidential primary elections.

The order Friday allowed the case to move forward with Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton as a defendant. She is a representative of the other 31 supervisors whose counties are involved.

In a brief asking Walker to dismiss Lee from the lawsuit, her attorneys pointed to a recent federal appeals-court ruling in a separate elections case and argued that the plaintiffs do not have legal “standing” to pursue claims against her. Walker on Friday relied on the appellate-court decision in a case known as Jacobson v. Florida Secretary of State.

The April decision, in a case challenging a decades-old Florida law that dictates the order of candidates on ballots, said plaintiffs lacked standing to sue Lee because they had not shown they were injured by the law and because local elections officials are responsible for the order in which candidates appear on the ballot.

The plaintiffs in the Spanish-language ballots lawsuit “ask this court to require defendant Lee to require the supervisors of elections to act,” Walker wrote in Friday’s seven-page order.“ This may have benefits in terms of uniformity and efficiency --- both important considerations in election law --- but just because a solution is good does not mean it is correct,” the judge said.

The Department of State published rules in April that address issues such as requiring Spanish-language ballots in the 32 counties, but the plaintiffs’ lawyers contend that the rules have problems. 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. The judge’s order requires the plaintiffs, who include named plaintiff Marta Valentina Rivera Madera and a coalition of groups, to “meet and confer” with Barton’s lawyers and submit proposed modified preliminary-injunction orders by Aug. 21.

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.


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