US judge orders 32 Florida counties to help Puerto Ricans vote
A worker takes off U.S and Puerto Rican flag after rally of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on May 16, 2016. (Reuters/Alvin Baez)

A federal judge on Friday ordered 32 Florida counties to provide sample Spanish language ballots to help more than 30,000 Puerto Ricans, including many displaced by last year’s Hurricane Maria, cast votes in the November election.

Chief Judge Mark Walker of the federal court in Tallahassee, the state capital, said failing to help eligible voters would likely violate the federal Voting Rights Act, which blocks states from conditioning the right to vote on an ability to understand English.

“Puerto Ricans are American citizens,” wrote Walker, an appointee of former President Barack Obama. “Unique among Americans, they are not educated primarily in English - and do not need to be. But, like all American citizens, they possess the fundamental right to vote.”

The decision is a win for several non-profit groups promoting civic engagement in Hispanic communities, which last month sued Florida’s Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner and the elections supervisor in Alachua County, which includes the city of Gainesville.

Walker had held a hearing on the matter on Wednesday.

He ruled quickly to afford Detzner and Gov. Rick Scott, both Republicans, time to appeal before the election “if they seek to block their fellow citizens, many of whom fled after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, from casting meaningful ballots.”

Lawyers for the non-profits did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Scott’s and Detzner’s offices did not immediately respond to similar requests.

Walker’s preliminary injunction also requires officials to provide sample Spanish language ballots online, and Spanish signs at polling places to tell voters those ballots are available.

The judge said to do less could force people who speak little or no English to choose between casting votes they do not meaningfully comprehend, or not voting at all. He called that “antithetical” to what the U.S. government stood for.

“Voting in a language you do not understand is like asking this court decide the winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry -ineffective, in other words,” Walker wrote.

The judge rejected requests for bilingual ballots, or separate Spanish ballots requiring major elections software changes, saying this would place “significant hardships” on election officials with the Nov. 6 election two months away.

Florida has 67 counties. Fifteen provide Spanish language or bilingual ballots, and 20 have at most few Puerto Ricans, according to the decision.

The case is Rivera Madera v. Detzner et al, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida, No. 18-00152.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien