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U.S. judge orders 32 Florida counties to help Puerto Ricans vote

(Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday ordered 32 Florida counties to provide sample Spanish language ballots that could help more than 30,000 Puerto Ricans, including many displaced by last year’s Hurricane Maria, to 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.

“We are thrilled that Judge Walker saw the need to provide Spanish language materials to U.S. citizens educated in Puerto Rico in Spanish,” Kira Romero-Craft, a lawyer for the nonprofits, said in an interview.

Spokespeople for Detzner and Governor Rick Scott, both Republicans, said the state will advise local election supervisors to comply.

“Florida is the world’s greatest melting pot, and we don’t want any registered voters to not be able to exercise their right because of a language barrier,” said John Tupps, a spokesman for the governor.

Scott has made several trips to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. He is now in a tight U.S. Senate race against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson.

Florida has been a swing state in recent national elections, and making it easier for more people to cast informed votes could prove decisive in statewide or local races.

Walker’s preliminary injunction 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 rejected requests for bilingual ballots, or separate Spanish ballots that would have required major software changes. That would place “significant hardships” on election officials, with the Nov. 6 election two months away, he said.

Florida has 67 counties. Of the 35 not covered by the decision, 15 provide Spanish language election materials, and 20 have few Puerto Rican residents.

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