In a role reversal of sorts, Puerto Rico election officials are fighting a federal court order to print ballots in English for the island's Nov. 4 general elections.
The court mandate was in response to a lawsuit brought by two residents who claimed they were left out of the commonwealth's elections because they didn't understand the ballots, which are printed in Spanish.
Both plaintiffs are American citizens from the mainland, where English-only advocates have argued that bilingual ballots undermine national unity, increase the risk of election fraud and put an undue burden on state and local governments.
The decision by the San Juan federal court order puts a different spin on the issue of voting in more than one language.
"I'm not trying to ram English down people's throats," said Robert McCarroll, one of the plaintiffs. "But to me it is a basic issue of fairness."
McCarroll, an 80-year-old retiree who moved to Puerto Rico from New York in the 1980s, said that he attempted to vote in 2004 but left the ballot incomplete because he didn't understand most of it. The other plaintiff, Sylvia Diffenderfer, said she is too intimidated by the language barrier to even attempt to vote. Their attorney, Eliezer Aldarondo, argued successfully that the island's Spanish-only ballot violated his clients' civil rights because it constituted discrimination against a group that is a minority in the island.
According to the 2000 census, 14 percent of the island's population - about 400,000 people - speak only English or have a limited command of Spanish
Attorneys for the Puerto Rico Elections Commission said in court that local elections were covered by Puerto Rican law, which makes no provision for ballots in a language other than Spanish. They said any changes to the ballots would prove costly and could jeopardize the upcoming elections because there wouldn't be enough time to print them in both languages.
But federal Judge Jose Antonio Fuste found no merit in the island's arguments. In his written opinion issued last week, he references the 1975 Voting Rights Act, which mandates governments to provide ballots in the language of a minority group if it constitutes 5 percent or more of the voting population. Attorneys for the Elections Commission immediately filed an appeal.
Hundreds of jurisdictions throughout the country provide bilingual, even multilingual ballots. In Central Florida, Orange and Osceola print ballots in English and Spanish. Miami-Dade County issues ballots in English, Spanish and Creole.
This law, however, was written for the continental U.S. and does not deem English speakers as a minority.
Fuste wrestled with this irony but concluded that the act still applies: "We find it appropriate in this context, clearly not contemplated by Congress, to include the English-monolingual community in Puerto Rico as a language minority group."