ProEnglish Attacks the Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act protects the rights of Americans to vote. It was a response to the practice of setting conditions on voting. Requiring that voters pay a poll tax or take a reading test could be used to make it harder for some citizens to vote, so these kinds of conditions were made illegal by this law in 1965. In 1975, the law was amended to require that ballots be provided in other languages besides English in communities where other languages were spoken. The 1975 law specifically mentions American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Americans of Hispanic heritage.

ProEnglish, an organization focused on making English the official language of the United States, has asked President-elect Donald Trump to repeal the requirements to provide multilingual ballots.

English is not and never has been the official language of the United States. Our forefathers considered the possibility, but rejected it, recognizing that the people of the United States speak many languages.

Providing bilingual ballots allows Americans to read the ballots in the language that they understand most fully. Citizens should vote with full understanding. Choosing to insist that all ballots be in Englihs only will make it harder for citizens to vote or increasing the chances that they will vote without full understanding.

ProEnglish claims that accommodating the needs of citizens with bilingual voting materials is too expensive. Electronic voting makes this claim implausible. The General Accountability Office prepared a report on the costs in 1997, when printing costs were an issue and found that compliance costs ranged from no additional costs at all to one million dollars. Even within states, costs varied widely. In Texas, for example, bilingual voting cost 1,520 in 1994 and $248,281 in 1995. The GAO concluded that it would be impossible to predict the costs added to the overall cost of voting.

ProEnglish suggests that people needing translation assistance should bring someone with them to the polling place when they vote. Not only is this an inefficient idea compared with producing ballots in the languages spoken in the community, it also threatens the privacy of the voters and would increase the time required to vote. It could therefore threaten the voting rights of others. There are situations in which it is necessary for a voter to have special help, but needing a ballot in Spanish isn’t one of them.

ProEnglish also claims that “Multilingual elections eliminate an important incentive for immigrants to learn English and become full participants in American public life.” They seem to be assuming that everyone who needs a ballot in a language other than English is an immigrant. Native Americans clearly are not. Neither are voters from Puerto Rico. Is being able to read a ballot in English “an important incentive” to learn English? Compared with career and educational prospects, probably not. If it is motivating to some, that is not a strong enough reason to disenfranchise others.

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