Why should citizens of the United States who don’t read English be denied the right to use a ballot printed in their native language?
Pose a contrary question: if you’re not proficient enough in English to read a ballot printed in English, can you be a fully functioning American citizen?
These questions are at the heart of a dispute that has blocked the House of Representatives from renewing sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
House and Senate leaders had planned this month to speed a vote on renewal of certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act that expire next year. But they hadn’t reckoned on Rep. Steve King.
A two-term Republican congressman from western Iowa, King and his allies have defied the House leadership by raising objections and delaying a floor vote on renewing parts of the law that expire in 2007.
King most objects to a provision, section 203, added in 1975, which requires certain jurisdictions to provide bilingual written materials, including ballots, to people who can not read English.
That provision currently applies to 296 counties, cities and boroughs where more than 10,000 voting-age citizens can’t speak English proficiently.
From Vietnamese to Navajo
The provision applies in places like Richland County, North Dakota and El Paso County, Texas. And it applies to a slew of languages, from Vietnamese to Navajo.
Last month the House Judiciary Committee rejected King’s amendment by a vote of 26 to 9.
Committee chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R- Wisc., opposes King’s efforts and is confident that when the renewal of the expiring provisions is brought to a floor vote, it will get broad support.
King has partnered with southern Republicans who have their own concerns about how a different part of the Voting Rights Act burdens their states. This coalition has succeeded for now in stymieing the House leadership.
But in a test of House sentiment, King and his allies lost a floor vote Wednesday night on an amendment proposed by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., that would have prohibited the Justice Department from spending any funds to enforce the foreign ballot mandate.
Despite this indication that King is in the minority in the House, his crusade has gotten renewed vigor from the current fierce debate over immigration.
Creating foreign language enclaves?
“We’ve been successful with our assimilation so far because immigrants have come in smaller increments and because we’ve given them no expectation that we’re going to turn this into a nation of enclaves that cater to other languages,” King said.
It would “send a very wrong message at the worst time — when the president is standing there saying, ‘immigrants need to learn English,’ why would we then send them a ballot in some other language?”
Addressing the the ballot mandate Thursday, House Majority Leader John Boehner said Thursday, "A lot of people feel it should continue to be part of the law. We're talking about American citizens who vote, some of whom do not speak English. As I think Chairman Sensenbrenner pointed out, three out of four of those who don't speak English and who are citizens are people who were born and raised in the United States and really it is more of an indictment of our education system, than it is of the fact we have bilingual ballots."
He added, "We have a number of (House) members who in the current fight over immigration believe this (bilingual ballot) issue is somewhat related. I don't think it is."
Should a Korean-American in Los Angeles or a Vietnamese-American in Houston be denied the right to vote in his own language, and if so, why?
“They would not be denied the right to vote,” King replied. “Under my proposal, there wouldn’t be federal mandate to create a foreign language ballot, but there’d be nothing that would prohibit the localities from printing whatever language ballot they want.”
And King has no objection to a voter bringing an interpreter into the voting booth with him.
What about the political risk of King alienating Spanish- speaking or Korean-speaking voters who might otherwise be likely to vote Republican?
“I surveyed every Hispanic surname in my congressional district, and we have a significant number of them,” King said. “Of those who responded, 75 percent want English to be the official language. So I’m not so concerned about alienating them. If they want English to be the official language it’s just natural to believe you’re going to get an English language ballot.”
King’s district is solidly Republican; he won re-election in 2004 with 63 percent of the vote. In all likelihood he has a safe seat. No jurisdictions in his district are covered by the foreign ballot provisions of the law.
Those facts partly explain why he’s taking the lead on this issue.
Warning about the future
“Once your district adopts these kinds of policies, their members are often defenders of these policies,’ he said. “If this proliferation of foreign language ballots continues to penetrate into America, the most vocal opponents will be the ones standing in the last read outs,” in other words the last bastions of English speakers.
That encirclement of English speakers, of course, has not yet happened and may never happen, but King said, “That’s the direction it is going. Assimilation is losing, division based on ethnicity and race is winning. That’s dividing America.”
Some observers predict King will not succeed.
Prof. Daniel Tokaji of the Ohio State University School of Law, an expert on the Voting Rights Act, said, “I expect in the end the language assistance provisions will probably be renewed because I don’t think the Republican Party is particularly anxious to alienate Latinos.”
Terry Ao, senior staff attorney at the Asian American Justice Center, rejects King’s arguments.
Ao argued, “Providing language assistance is something that allows both native-born citizens who have unfortunately not been able to become fluent in English, as well as newly naturalized citizens, the opportunity to participate in our democracy.”
It’s a matter, she said, of “not penalizing them for not yet learning English to the level where they can participate in the voting process.”
A permanent fixture?
If House leaders find a way around King and Congress does re-authorize the expiring parts of the Voting Rights Act, they will last until 2032.
That will mean that the foreign language requirement will have been the law of the land for nearly 60 years, not a permanent law, but something very well-entrenched.
Even though the foreign language ballot mandate seems to becoming permanent fixture, Ao said there’s still a need for it. “There are still remnants of discrimination that warrant the continued protection of the Voting Rights Act and section 203, in particular,” she said.
“It’s not just about immigrants,” Ao said. “It’s also about native-born citizens who have not been able to achieve fluency in English, from Americans Indians to Alaskan natives to Puerto Ricans and other Latino Americans and Asian Americans who were born here, but because of educational disparities or other reasons have not been able to obtain fluency in English,” she said.
Tokaji, another critic of King’s effort, said, “Look at ballot initiatives today. They’re very complicated, even for those of us whose first language is English. Imagine trying to make sense of such a complicated ballot measure in a language that is not your first language. Why anyone would want people to be casting uninformed votes in these circumstances is beyond me.”