Florida Republicans target foreign-language voting

Desiline Victor, the 102-year-old North Miami voter who became a symbol of Florida’s elections woes, could again find it tough to cast a ballot now that the state Senate voted Tuesday to keep a crackdown on foreign-language interpreters at the polls.

The Republican-controlled Senate maintained the last-minute measure on what appeared to be a party-line voice vote while debating a bill designed to reverse the effects of an election law that helped create long lines and suppress the vote in 2012.

On Election Day at Victor’s polling station, there were not enough interpreters for the Creole-speaking native of Haiti and hundreds like her. Turnout was heavy. And lines lasted for hours — partly due to a slew of proposed state Constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the Legislature.

“My mom is a victim of this problem,” said Victor’s godson, Mathieu Pierre-Louis, whom she raised as her own child. “If they’re going to change something, it should be to make voting easier. Just make it easy.”

Victor, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, voted after an hours-long wait. Her struggle earned her an invitation and a shout-out from President Barack Obama at his State of the Union address.

Now, months later, Republicans began a whisper campaign that they suspected the interpreters were helping cast ballots on Election Day in Democrat-heavy North Miami.

Republican lawmakers inserted the language in the must-pass elections bill before it hit the Senate floor, limiting significant public testimony or the receipt of any evidence that interpreters acted unethically or in a partisan way.

“This is a horrible amendment,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Democrat who represents the North Miami area where Victor voted. His amendment to strip out the language was defeated Tuesday.

“During the election, we couldn’t get enough interpreters,” he said. “The lines were long because of all the constitutional amendments. They were hard to read in English and they were even harder in Creole.”

One liberal voting-rights group, Florida New Majority, threatened to sue.

The architect of the new elections bill, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said his measure would not ban interpreters, but would limit those who use foreign-language speakers for partisan ends.

“It’s become kind of a political tool in many areas to have folks who stay at the precincts all day offering their services to go in and help people, and in many cases in an intimidating fashion,” said Latvala. He provided no examples.

“What it does away with,” he said, “is the right of someone to stand outside a polling place and say: ‘I want to go in and help you because I’m here.’ It limits one person being able to do that 10 times a day.”

But that’s a major change, says Braynon and liberal-leaning election-rights groups.

If a person can provide assistance to only 10 people, then certain precincts could have required as many as 50 interpreters during the 2012 elections, Braynon said.

“We had trouble finding five people to help interpret,” he said.

The new limitation could trigger a lawsuit because it violates the Voting Rights Act, which “says any voter who can’t read or write has a choice of who gets to help them,” said Gihan Perera, executive director of the liberal Florida New Majority. He said translators are already regulated, and must submit affidavits to affirm they follow the law and act in a nonpartisan way.

Democrats were quick to note that Latvala’s inability to provide evidence of voter fraud by interpreters had echoes of the 2011 debate over the law known as House Bill 1355. It limited pre-Election Day early voting, loaded constitutional amendments onto the ballot and cracked down on voter-registration drives.

Republican lawmakers said the bill was needed to cut down on fraud, but they provided no evidence of fraud committed during early voting — at which Democrats excelled.

Plus, the bill that they said targeted fraud did nothing to target the most likely type of illegal voting: absentee ballots, which Republicans excel at casting.

By limiting early voting and including lengthy, time-consuming amendments on the ballot, the Legislature helped create long lines at the polls. Some people cast ballots well after midnight after eight-hour waits. Many dropped out of line, unable to vote early on weekdays and unable to cast ballots on Election Day because they had to get to work.

Those problems should largely go away under Latvala’s new bill, which would increase early voting again, expand the types of sites where early voting can be offered and would limit lengthy ballot questions. A House bill has similar provisions to reverse the effects of HB 1355.

Miami-Dade has Florida’s largest number of foreign-born and foreign-language voters — many of whom lean Democratic — and would therefore be more affected by the limitation on interpreters in the Senate bill. SEIU Florida, a union, reported providing about 4,000 voters throughout South Florida with voter translation and literacy assistance.

Still, the limitation is not likely to have the broad vote-suppressing effects of HB 1355 because it affects a smaller segment of the electorate.

Also, HB 1355 was not the sole reason for Election Day problems. Miami-Dade failed to properly equip or provide some adequate polling stations, leaving too few voting booths for too many voters who needed to take too much time because of the too-long ballots.

As a result, Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, an architect of HB 1355, offered a controversial amendment that was aimed at Miami-Dade’s elections supervisor, Penelope Townsley.

The amendment, approved on a close and largely party-line vote, gives the secretary of state the authority to place a county supervisor of election on “noncompliant status,” including the loss of $2,000 in salary. After three years of a supervisor’s noncompliance, the secretary can recommend that the governor remove the supervisor.

“It’s more symbolic than anything else,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “It’s not about removal from office. Only the governor can do that.”

While that amendment caused a stir in Tallahassee, the crackdown on interpreters was of more concern to voting-rights groups, Victor’s godson and many in the Haitian community.

“I feel very unhappy with this,” he said. “They should not make it harder. In North Miami you have many people who really only speak Creole and they need help to vote.”

Miami Herald staff writers Nadege Green and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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