GOP Lawmakers split on bilingual elections

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue May 9 13:10:01 UTC 2006

>>From the San Francisco Chronicle Monday, May 8, 2006

GOP lawmakers split on bilingual elections
House group seeks to end non-English ballots, translators

- Nicole Gaouette, Los Angeles Times

Washington -- A group of House Republicans wants to do away with bilingual
ballots and translation assistance at the polls, a reflection of how
tensions over immigration are pervading other issues. As Congress readies
to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the lawmakers are lobbying
their colleagues to let the act's language assistance provisions expire.
There are 56 lawmakers who support the act but say the language assistance
to voters -- provided throughout much of California -- undermines national
unity, increases the risk of election fraud, and puts an undue burden on
state and local governments.

"We believe these ballot provisions encourage the linguistic division of
our nation and contradict the 'melting pot' ideal that has made us the
most successful multiethnic nation on Earth," the members said in a letter
earlier this year. The group's effort probably won't succeed, in part
because of other Republicans' concerns that it could further offend Latino
voters upset by the enforcement-only immigration legislation the House
passed in December. Policy analysts said the focus on bilingual ballots
illustrated a hardening of positions within the GOP as the debate on
illegal immigration evolved.

"It's reflective of the broader divide in the Republican Party on the
immigration issue and related cultural questions," said Marshall Wittmann,
a former GOP Senate aide who is a senior fellow at the Democratic
Leadership Council. "This division is now being reflected in collateral
issues, like the Voting Rights Act." Under President Bush, the GOP has
emphasized courting Latino voters. But many Republican lawmakers also have
spotlighted illegal immigration as a key concern, contending that the
continuing flow of illegal immigrants into the United States is
transforming the nation culturally and must be stemmed. Such attitudes led
to the passage of the House bill that would significantly upgrade border
security, make illegal presence in the United States a felony and make
aiding illegal immigrants a felony.

Bush is urging Congress to pass a bill that, along with beefed-up border
security, includes a guest-worker program and some legalization measures
for illegal immigrants. He also is encouraging immigrants to learn
English. The Senate and House are to conduct committee hearings on
reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, prime
sponsor of allowing the language assistance provision expire, plans to
submit his proposal as an amendment in the House Judiciary Committee this
week. The Voting Rights Act was designed to prevent discrimination from
interfering with a citizen's ability to vote. When the act was extended in
1975, Congress added the section that requires some jurisdictions to
provide bilingual ballots and translators.

The proposal's backers say that U.S.-born or naturalized citizens should
know enough English to vote, particularly because a command of the
language is a requirement for citizenship. King said another provision of
the Voting Rights Act allows voters who need help, including translation,
to bring someone with them. But Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the main
author of the enforcement-only House immigration bill, staunchly defended
the language assistance provision in the Voting Rights Act.

"If (immigrants) want to achieve the American dream, they better learn how
to read and function in English," Sensenbrenner said. "But this deals with
the right to vote, and these people are United States citizens; they are
not illegal immigrants. It seems to me these people should not be confused
because they don't have the proper instruction about how to vote on
ballots for the candidates of their choice."

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