updated 11/8/2005 6:32:11 PM ET 2005-11-08T23:32:11

Congress is considering whether to renew a 30-year-old requirement that large communities of people who speak limited English must have access to ballots in their native language.

In a hearing Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee’s panel on the Constitution, some argued that lawmakers should expand the requirement to include more jurisdictions. Others urged them to scrap it as an unconstitutional and costly burden on states.

The bilingual ballot section, which was added to the Voting Rights Act in 1975, is one of two key portions of the law that expire in 2007 without congressional action. Also expiring is a requirement that states with a history of racial discrimination get federal approval to change their election laws.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said that if most immigrants must prove they can speak English to become citizens, that should also be the test for voting.

However, defenders of the requirement responded that the question isn’t whether most of these voters can speak basic English but whether they can adequately comprehend confusing ballot language.

“They are American citizens, they are United States citizens, and they should be allowed to vote just like anybody else,” said Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C.

Under the requirement, known as Section 203, local jurisdictions must provide bilingual ballots and election materials if more than 5 percent of the voting age population or at least 10,000 citizens fall into a certain language minority group. The illiteracy rate of the minority group must also be higher than the national average.

The Justice Department has identified 296 jurisdictions meeting this requirement. Only four minority groups are covered: American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan natives and Hispanics.

Bradley Schlozman, who oversees the department’s civil rights division, said voting participation among those ethnic groups has skyrocketed in recent years. In Yakima County, Wash., the focus of a recent lawsuit over Section 203, Hispanic registration is up 24 percent, he said.

Margaret Fung, the executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, told the subcommittee that the law has been so effective that it should be expanded. She said lowering the threshold from 10,000 voters to 7,500 would cover thousands more citizens who could make more informed decisions with a bilingual ballot.

Linda Chavez, a conservative commentator who is president of One Nation Indivisible, said the requirement violates the Constitution, which puts high limits on what the federal government can demand of states.

Lack of language education, not racism, is the reason language minorities struggle to understand ballots, Chavez said.

“While there was scattered and sporadic discrimination, it was nothing comparable to the discrimination that blacks faced in the Deep South,” she said.

Chavez said that in 2002, Los Angeles County alone spent more than $3 million on bilingual materials. Other witnesses said the expense is minimal, less than 5 percent of what is typically spent on an election.

Rep. Jarrold Nadler, D-N.Y., asked Chavez if the burden on local election officials is so high why no one has seriously challenged it in court after 30 years. Chavez responded that if the provision is renewed, someone likely will.

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