Yes on Bilingual Ballots

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Monday, July 10, 2006

THE HOUSE of Representatives' smooth passage to renewal of the Voting Rights Act hit a bump last month when a group of conservative Republicans rebelled over, among other things, provisions to require bilingual ballots in many jurisdictions. The rebels were wrong. When the House takes up the measure, as it may do this week, it should reject any effort to strip the bilingual-ballot requirement or to allow objections over the rule to torpedo this important measure.

The disputed provisions were adopted as part of the 1975 Voting Rights Act. The requirements apply to political subdivisions where there is a significant population (more than 5 percent of eligible voters, or 10,000, whichever is fewer) of "language minority" voters (defined as those of Hispanic, Asian, Native American or Alaskan Native origins) and a higher than average illiteracy rate among that group. Currently, nearly 500 jurisdictions in 31 states must provide election information -- from registration requirements to instructions to ballots -- in more than one language; five states -- Alaska, Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas -- must provide such help statewide.

The arguments against this provision have an air of reasonableness that dissipates upon closer study. Attaining proficiency in English is a requirement of naturalization, opponents note, so why should an English-only ballot be a problem for anyone who's attained citizenship? In addition, the critics contend, the law imposes costs on local jurisdictions and serves as a disincentive to assimilate and learn English.

But the level of English proficiency required for citizenship isn't the same as that which could be required to read a complicated ballot initiative -- or even a form whose instructions aren't completely clear. (Anybody remember butterfly ballots?) Nor do the English proficiency requirements apply to older residents seeking citizenship. And many native-born Americans whose English skills are limited -- Native Americans, Alaskan Natives and Latinos -- benefit from getting election information in their preferred languages. Puerto Rican citizens who move to the mainland ought to be able to read ballots in their native language.

The costs may not be negligible; in Los Angeles, the largest and most diverse local election jurisdiction in the country, election officials spend less than 10 percent of their budget to provide language assistance in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog and Vietnamese. But the benefits are clear: When bilingual assistance is provided, voting participation increases and members of the affected groups have a better shot at winning elections. Hispanic voter registration in Yakima County, Wash., went up 24 percent after the Justice Department sued the county for failing to comply with the law. After Justice reached an agreement with Harris County, Texas, turnout of Vietnamese American voters doubled, and the first Vietnamese American was elected to the state legislature.

We doubt there are many people who will decide to learn, or not to learn, English based on the availability of bilingual ballots. But we don't doubt that many more people will vote, and in an informed way, if they know what they're voting on. That is something to be welcomed, not feared.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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