Waco (Texas): Citizens' rights shouldn't depend on fluency

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Jun 26 12:24:46 UTC 2006

>>From the Waco Tribune, Sunday, June 25, 2006

Editorial: Citizens' rights shouldn't depend on fluency

Back before the Voting Rights Act changed everything, some states required
a literacy test to vote. It was a device aimed particularly at minimizing
the black vote in the South. Most Americans would emphatically oppose such
voter intimidation today.  Unfortunately, some of those same Americans
support a literacy test of a different stripe. They want all ballots and
official government communication to be in English. Since millions of U.S.
citizens dont have sufficient English proficiency, just as some poor
Americans might have lacked sufficient literacy under poll tests, this
effectively would deprive them of their voting rights.

In 1975 the original 1965 Voting Rights Act which banned poll taxes,
literacy tests and more was amended to protect the rights of voters who
lacked sufficient command of English. Jurisdictions in which more than 5
percent of eligible voters lack English proficiency and use another
language must provide ballots in the language those voters use. Indeed,
this consideration is what brought Texas under the Voting Rights Act. It
had been excluded under the original provisions. Ballots in other
languages may stick in the craw of many voters. But to do otherwise would
prevent some citizens from voting. Though the nationalization process
requires English language instruction, millions of American citizens,
particularly those nationalized generations ago, are not proficient.

Certainly every effort should be made to help them become fluent in
English. But if theyre citizens, their language should no more prevent
them from voting than if they were in wheelchairs or were blind. An effort
is afoot in Congress to blunt reauthorization of sections of the Voting
Rights Act that expire next year. Those provisions include the bilingual
ballot requirement. Another effort would declare English Americas national
language and prohibit the use of foreign languages in official
communications unless required under current law, under an amendment to
immigration legislation sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and
approved in the Senate. Opponents say it would wipe out a host of
multilingual provisions at federal and state levels.

A more reasonable amendment also approved in the Senate declares English
the common and unifying language but doesn't change public policy on how
government communicates with constituents lacking English proficiency.
It's not convenient having many tongues in the public square. But that has
always defined our public square. And lets face it: Democracy isn't


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