Bilingual interpreters and foreign language ballots at polling places are becoming an issue in the reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, legislation that has won rare election-year agreement between Republicans and Democrats.
A group of conservatives say some portions of the act are outdated, including provisions requiring bilingual interpreters and ballots in several languages.
But in a rare shoulder-to-shoulder show of unity, leaders of both parties pledged to push the renewal past the opposition this year in an effort to safeguard the right to vote.
There was another reason the bill is headed for passage: Election-year politics. Republicans hope it will inoculate GOP candidates against charges of racism stemming from controversial proposals to overhaul immigration policy. Democrats believe it will energize minorities who are a major component of the party’s base.
Opponents are fighting a losing battle, said the leaders of both houses.
“The train is out of the station,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, D-Wis., the bill’s sponsor in the House. He said he expects the House to approve the legislation by Memorial Day, leaving its passage to the Senate, where the Judiciary Committee is expected to convene hearings.
The 1965 law sought to end racist poll taxes and literacy tests by putting Southern states, the worst offenders, under tighter guidelines than most other places.
First planned renewal in 25 years
The legislation introduced Tuesday would renew the law for the first time in 25 years. Back in 1982, lawmakers thought discrimination at the polls would be stamped out by the 21st century, recalled Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. But breaches continue and were detailed in several House hearings on the subject.
Sensenbrenner’s bill would require jurisdictions to add bilingual ballots and offer bilingual assistance at polling places where large communities of people speak limited English.
It also would renew a requirement that states and counties with a history of racial discrimination — from the South to New York City and certain areas of California — get federal approval to change their election laws.
Despite the leadership power behind the proposal, opposition remains.
More than 50 House Republicans wrote Sensenbrenner in February saying the requirements for bilingual interpreters and ballots in different languages “encourage the linguistic division of our nation and contradict the ’melting pot’ ideal,” they wrote.
And on Tuesday, three GOP senators — John Cornyn of Texas, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — asked Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to slow the process to make sure any legislation would withstand a Supreme Court challenge.