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Spanish ballots mandated for much of Florida

Voters in almost half of Florida must have access to Spanish-language ballots in time for the 2020 presidential primary next March, a federal judge has ruled.

District Judge Mark Walker on Friday ordered state election officials to offer election materials and assistance to the growing Spanish-speaking population in the nation's most populous politically competitive state. In a close contest at a critical juncture in the primary Democratic season, a bigger turnout by Latinos (who find their access to the ballot box has been made easier) could prove decisive in propelling one candidate toward the nomination.

Civil rights groups sued the state last year for what they claim was inadequate voting assistance made available to Spanish-speaking citizens, including the estimated 56,000 Puerto Ricans who migrated to Florida after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. The suit, brought by LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Demos, argued that federal law guarantees the right to register and vote for those with limited English, and Walker agreed.

The Voting Rights Act "prohibits English-only elections for those citizens — yes, citizens — educated in Puerto Rico in Spanish," Walker wrote in his ruling, italicizing the key word for emphasis. His order covers 32 of the state's 67 counties.

Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens and can register to vote in any state once they establish residency, but many reared on the island primarily speak Spanish.

Florida's Puerto Rican population had eclipsed 1 million by the middle of this decade, according to the Pew Research Center.

"For democratic participation to have any meaning, voters must be able to exercise their right to vote in a language they understand," Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos, said after the ruling. "In today's decision, the court recognized that Spanish-speaking voters are not second-class citizens."

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