Q&A with St. Johns County Supervisor of Elections Vicky Oakes

Q: Can you give us some background on the bilingual ballot language requirements?
A: Last year, we were involved in a lawsuit with 32 other counties in Florida regarding voters from Puerto Rico who evacuated to Florida as a result of Hurricane Maria. They are U.S. Citizens, educated in American schools, but English is not their primary language. The 32 counties were required to provide Spanish sample ballots for the Nov. 6, 2018 General Election in all forms we make them available, such as on our website, mailed, or advertised and at all voting locations.

We also were required to provide additional measures such as hiring additional bilingual poll workers, and be able to provide bilingual assistance as needed. We already had 15 bilingual poll workers, but were able to hire additional and had a total of 38 bilingual workers who worked during early voting and at the polls on election day. Two of our 11 full time staff members are bilingual and available to provide Spanish language assistance anytime.

Now, the judge has moved forward and ordered ballots and all voting materials to be in English and in Spanish for the March 17, 2020 Presidential Preference Primary Election.

Also, in a policy decision, Gov. DeSantis has directed that all Florida counties must provide ballots and voting materials in English and in Spanish for all future elections. Presently, there are 14 counties with at least 5 percent of their voting age population identified as Spanish speaking that do this; now all counties will be required to comply, regardless of the percentage of their population that is Spanish speaking.

Q: So what exactly will you have to do to comply?
A: Pretty much all materials in the Elections Office will have to be in English and in Spanish, to include ballots, absentee envelopes, provisional ballot envelopes and secrecy sleeves, voter information cards, voter registration applications, voting instructions, voter information guides and pamphlets, Notification of Election, polling place changes and signage and all information available on the Supervisor of Elections’ website. We will need to provide a toll-free Spanish-language hotline with at least one bilingual employee for the purpose of translating or otherwise assisting voters.

Basically, all notifications, announcements and informational materials about all stages of the electoral process, including materials concerning the opportunity to register, voter registration deadlines, times, places and subject matters of the elections, the absentee and early voting processes, offices up for election, candidates who have qualified and local issues or referenda and announcements applicable to elections in the county will need to be available in English and in Spanish.

Q: What will this all cost?
A: We received the court order on May 13 and I have ordered staff to determine the cost to replace everything in the office, including our precinct signs and supplies for the polls. My budget is due to the Board of County Commissioners on May 31. I present my office’s budget in person to the board on June 18. There will definitely be a cost to the taxpayers to comply and we are working to determine what it is. We are under a federal judicial order and a Secretary of State directive in addition to the Florida policy Administrative Rule from the governor. There are no additional funds coming from the state to comply with this order.

Q: What is the best way for our readers to contact you?

A: Readers can email me at voakes@votesjc.com or call me at (904) 823-2238.