Sample ballots have to be printed in Spanish. That’s a bad idea, says Manatee elections chief

Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett
Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett

Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett said his office will comply with a federal judge’s ruling last week to provide Spanish-language sample ballots ahead of the Nov. 6 general election.

But Bennett thinks it’s a bad idea and sets a potentially complicated precedent.

Bennett said the quicker someone — especially from U.S. territories like Puerto Rico — can learn English and assimilate into the American society, the quicker they can become successful and live the American dream.

“My biggest objection on the issue of trying to make it easy for everybody to vote is that we are, in fact, hurting them when we don’t push them to learn English,” Bennett said. “Take the Hispanic or Creole that moves to Miami. The first thing they do is they go to those communities who speak their language and unfortunately it holds them back.”

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Bennett, a former state lawmaker, questions what will be next.

Residents of several overseas territories, including Puerto Rico, are U.S. citizens and are eligible to vote. Many Puerto Ricans resettled in Florida after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island last year, drawing the attention of political candidates looking for support for their election bids.

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Puerto Rico was annexed in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War in 1898. That same year, the U.S. annexed Guam where 58,000 people still speak the native language of Chamorro. A year later, the U.S. acquired American Samoa where Polynesian is still the primary language. It’s the same for the U.S. territories making up the Northern Mariana Islands.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are the only U.S. territory where English is the only official language. English is one of two official languages in Puerto Rico, but is spoken by less than 10 percent of the native population. Many U.S. territories offer English as a second language classes to make travel and/or migration to the U.S. easier.

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Bennett said places like Puerto Rico need to bring more focus to education and teaching English, at least as a second language. Bennett’ said the judge’s ruling could open the door to requiring ballots to be in multiple languages one day.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued a 27-page ruling on Sept. 7 granting a partial victory to the plaintiffs — multiple Hispanic advocacy groups — ordering Manatee County and 31 other counties to print and display Spanish-language sample ballots. The ruling, in part, was to give a growing Puerto Rican community in Florida a chance to understand what they might vote on in November.

“The correct thing is to go with Florida law and the Florida Constitution, which says English is the official language,” Bennett said. “So I think we are hurting them trying to be all things to all people. That’s my feeling on it, but regardless, the state of Florida said we have to do it and we will do and do it well.”

Bennett said there will be an additional cost to taxpayers to get it done, but that his office likely has enough money left over in the budget to get it accomplished without it becoming a financial burden. He could not provide cost estimates yet but his office currently is getting quotes from several printers.

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In his ruling, Walker states he believes election offices need to go further to be in compliance with the Voting Rights Act, but he recognized the burden it would create with less than two months before the general election. The injunction sought by the plaintiffs asked also to have Spanish-language ballots available at polling stations and that those stations hire bilingual poll workers.

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Walker ordered only printing of the sample ballots in Spanish, requiring also that they be provided on elections office websites and that signs be placed at polling stations with information on how to access Spanish-language sample ballots.

“We’ve got to find some common sense to all the political correctness,” Bennett said. “We’re hurting these people, not helping them. But we will follow what I’m told even though I don’t agree with it.”

Bennett said it also will take some time to ensure the language is interpreted correctly so the wording on the Florida constitutional amendments follow the exact intended purpose.

“We are on top it and we’ll be ready to go at the right time,” Bennett said.

The Bradenton Herald reached out to Sarasota-based UnidosNow and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials for comment, but officials did not immediately respond.

Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló unveiled a $94.3 billion disaster relief request to Congress on Monday, a massive sum that he said will help the U.S. territory adequately recover from Hurricane Maria.