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English Is Broken Here

Sunday, September 1, 1996

California's Yuba County is getting ready to spend $12,000 this November on election materials that nobody will use. That's because the federal government forces local officials to print voting information in Spanish for every election.

          "Bilingual ballots are an enormous waste of county resources," says Frances Fairey, Yuba County's registrar of voters. In last March's primary election, this county north of Sacramento was forced to spend $17,411 on Spanish-language election materials. But, according to Fairey, "In my 16 years on this job, I have received only one request for Spanish literature from any of my constituents."


Allowing voters to cast foreign-language ballots degrades the idea of citizenship


          The biggest problem with bilingual ballots, however, is not that they go unused in Yuba County, but that they are used in so many other places. Thousands of Americans are voting in foreign languages, even though naturalized citizens are required to know English. The National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium estimates, for instance, that 31 percent of Chinese-American voters in New York City and 14 percent in San Francisco used some form of bilingual assistance in the November 1994 elections. Though these figures may be overstated, proportions anywhere near this magnitude are devastating to democracy. As Boston University president John Silber noted in congressional testimony last April, bilingual ballots "impose an unacceptable cost by degrading the very concept of the citizen to that of someone lost in a country whose public discourse is incomprehensible to him."

          A nation noted for its diversity needs certain instruments of unity to keep the pluribus from overrunning the unum. Our common citizenship is one such tool. Another, equally important, is the English language. It binds our multiethnic, multiracial, and multireligious society together. Not everyone need speak English all of the time, but it must be the lingua franca of civic life. Since the voting booth is one of the vital places in which citizens directly participate in democracy, it must be the official language of the election process.

          It is not, however, and political jurisdictions ranging from Yuba County to New York City can pin this mess on the perversion of voting-rights legislation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteed blacks the right to vote in places, particularly the South, where they had been systematically blocked from electoral participation, often through the use of bogus "literacy tests." But as Manhattan Institute scholar Abigail Thernstrom has shown in her comprehensive book Whose Votes Count?, it did not take long for this important piece of civil rights legislation to expand in dangerous ways.

          After the Act's passage in 1965, civil rights groups toiled to expand its authority. When the law came up for reauthorization in 1975, Hispanic organizations argued that English-language ballots were the equivalent of literacy tests. People whose first language was Spanish needed special protections in order to vote, they claimed, citing low turnout among Hispanics. This was sheer quackery. Literacy tests in the South were used for the fraudulent purpose of keeping blacks away from elections. Low Hispanic turnout was mainly due to the fact that so many Hispanics were not citizens and therefore ineligible to vote.

          Nevertheless, Congress sided with the activists. It required bilingual ballots in any political district where "language minorities" made up at least 5 percent of the total population and less than half of the district's citizens were either registered to vote or had voted in the 1972 presidential election. It also required that bilingual election materials be made available to voters in every county in which the language-minority population had an "illiteracy rate" -- meaning "failure to complete the 5th grade," a trait that includes many immigrants--above the national average. Interestingly, "language minorities" were not defined by language (a cultural characteristic), but by ancestry (a genetic one). The category included only "persons who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives, or of Spanish heritage." French Canadians living in Maine, the inhabitants of Little Italy in New York City, and the Pennsylvania Dutch received no special assistance. By the early 1990s, the foreign-language ballot provisions of federal voting-rights law applied to 68 jurisdictions in the United States.

          The bilingual-ballot mandate bloated even further in 1992, when Congress said that counties with more than 10,000 residents who speak the same language and who are not proficient in English must provide bilingual voting ballots, even if their potential users make up less than 5 percent of the overall population. This applied to heavily populated areas with large numbers of non-English-speaking residents, such as Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco. To comply, New York City had to purchase new voting machinery because its old equipment did not have enough space for all the Chinese characters that the law said it must provide. Los Angeles County now offers ballots in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. In the three elections between November 1993 and November 1994, the county spent more than $1.2 million to print voting materials in these foreign tongues. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund has called this "a particularly small price to pay." This "small price" could have paid for a year's tuition at UCLA for 308 Los Angeles residents.

          Ballot initiatives are often worded very precisely. Will translations always convey the exact English-language meaning of every initiative? In a deliberative democracy, they must. On a 1993 New York ballot question, translators printed the Chinese character for "no" where it should have said "yes." More important, immigrant voters should not even need bilingual ballots. We have required naturalization applicants since 1907 to demonstrate English-language proficiency. In order to become citizens -- and thus gain the right to vote -- the foreign-born have to demonstrate the ability to speak, read, and write simple English. A handful of them are granted exemptions. Naturalization applicants who are over the age of 50 and have lived in the United States for 20 years do not have to meet the English requirement. But they only make up about 7 percent of all citizenship applicants. The other 93 percent have to pass the test. So why do we assume they lose their English skills on Election Day? Meanwhile, foreign-language voting sends one more message to immigrants that assimilation is not an important part of civil society.

          A popular antidote to bilingual ballots is declaring English the official language of the United States. But that is like declaring the bald eagle its official bird -- it's essentially symbolic. Many self-proclaimed official-English advocates in Congress have no intention of repealing foreign-language ballot laws or federal funding of bilingual education. When Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska opened hearings on an official-English bill last December, he proudly announced that "the bill does not affect existing laws which provide bilingual and native language instruction. Those statutes are integral parts of our national language policy." Message to civil rights activists: We're not going to change a thing.

          In a speech to the 1995 American Legion convention in Indianapolis, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole announced that "English must be recognized as America's official language." But he said nothing about bilingual ballots. As a senator in 1992, Dole voted to expand their use.

          In August, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would repeal the federal government's unfunded bilingual ballot mandate by amending the Voting Rights Act. It would not deny local communities the right to print non-English voting materials, should they choose to pay for it themselves. Nor would it stop voters from taking punch cards into the election booth. No companion bill, however, has been introduced in the Senate.

          There is a long tradition in the United States of ethnic newspapers -- often printed in languages other than English -- providing political guidance to their readers in the form of sample ballots and visual aids that explain how to vote. In the absence of bilingual ballots, this practice could continue and expand. Perhaps we should also allow voters to bring a friend or relative into the booth, just as blind voters can do. The polling place would remain open to people who have trouble with English, but it also would remind them that English -- or even broken English -- is the common language of American democracy.