A federal judge quoted the movie Groundhog Day when ruling Friday that 32 counties across Florida violated the Voting Rights Act by denying Puerto Ricans — displaced by Hurricane Maria and now living in Florida — access to Spanish-language ballots.
In the opening line of his ruling, U.S. District Court of Northern Florida Judge Mark Walker characterized Florida’s numerous violations when handling its elections as a case of ‘what’s old is new again.’ And apparently the judge is a Bill Murray fan.
“Here were are again. The clock hits 6:00 a.m. Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’ starts playing. Denizens of and visitors to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania eagerly await the groundhog’s prediction,” Walker wrote. “And the state of Florida is alleged to violate federal law in its handling of elections.”
A coalition of advocacy groups and a voter from Puerto Rico sued Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner and election supervisors of 32 counties throughout the state for violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that banned discriminatory barriers to voting. Judge Walker agreed, ruling in favor of the group that those counties should be required to provide bilingual voting materials, including ballots and poll worker support, for Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican voters.
“Puerto Ricans are American citizens. 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,” Walker wrote.
Walker ordered the ruling on an expedited basis to give Florida officials “ample” time to appeal if “they seek to block their fellow citizens, many of whom fled after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, from casting meaningful ballots.”
“It is remarkable that it takes a coalition of voting rights organizations and individuals to sue in federal court to seek minimal compliance with the plain language of a venerable 53-year-old law,” he added.
Advocacy groups have been working to register thousands of Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida following the hurricane to vote in the midterm elections. However, they have faced a number of hurdles including language barriers, confusion because political parties and issues are different in Puerto Rico, and a general distrust of the government.
Meanwhile, both Republicans and Democrats in the state’s gubernatorial and Senate races have tried to court the Puerto Rican vote in recent weeks. This includes Governor Rick Scott, who is running for U.S. Senate and whose administration attempted to block access to bilingual ballots.
Judge Walker in July struck down a separate attempt by state officials to block access to voting. Walker said Florida’s attempts to ban college and university campuses as early voting sites in this year’s elections was unconstitutional and an attempt to stop younger people from voting, according to the Sun-Sentinel newspaper.