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Florida Senate Republicans crack down on foreign-language interpreters for 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 Republican-controlled state Senate voted Tuesday to keep a crack down on foreign-language interpreters at the polls.

The 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 weren’t 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 Florida Legislature.

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

Victor, who couldn’t be reached, voted after an hours-long wait. Her struggle earned her an invitation and a shoutout from President Obama at his State of the Union address.

Now, months later, Republicans began a whisper campaign to complain 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 receiving any evidence that any illegal act had happened.

"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 on 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.

But the architect of the new elections bill, St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, said his measure doesn’t ban interpreters, but it limits 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, providing 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 only provide assistance to 10 people, then certain precincts could require up to 50 interpreters during the 2012 elections, Braynon said.

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

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