Monday, June 21, 2010

Foreign Language Ballots

Voting ballots and voter information guides are currently in a large number of voting districts required to be published in a varying number of foreign languages, in addition to English. While probably well intended by its proponents, this is a costly and imprudent practice which should be stopped. All ballots and voter information guides should be in English only! As someone who came to this country with no knowledge of English at all, I consider this a clear no-brainer!

The National Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, was primarily intended originally to prohibit states from imposing any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting which would have the effect of denying or abridging the right of any U. S. citizen to vote on the account of race or color. It was especially directed at a number of southern states who had for decades been discriminating against African-American citizens.

The Act established extensive federal oversight of elections management and provided that states with a history of discriminatory voting practices could not implement any change affecting voting without first obtaining approval of the U. S. Department of Justice. Congress has amended and extended the Act several times since its original passage, most recently in 2006 when President George Bush signed a 25 year extension into law. One of the amendments on the subject of this post was approved by Congress in 1975, when a "foreign language" section was added. The Department of Justice has so far ordered more than 300 jurisdictions in more than 30 states to provide ballots, signs, registration forms and voter information guides in foreign languages. In some jurisdictions it is just Spanish or Chinese, in others, like Los Angeles County and Santa Clara County, it is four or more foreign languages. In the City of Los Angeles seven or eight languages are involved! This is ridiculous!

Which languages apparently depends on how many citizens in a particular jurisdiction have a language other than English as their primary language, not necessarily on whether or not they understand English well enough to read and understand the voting ballots and related information.

Why specifically do I think all voting ballots and related information should be provided in English only?

1. Reverting to this practice can save a great deal of money to financially struggling municipal jurisdictions who are having to make sizeable cuts in marginal as well as priority expenditures. We're talking about hundreds of thousand dollars for larger jurisdictions and upwards of $50 million nationally, perhaps even more.

2. Continuing with foreign languages reduces the incentive of immigrants to improve their knowledge of English, something which is generally needed for cultural assimilation, educational advancement and finding more attractive employment opportunities.

3. In order to vote intelligently voters need to be more proficient in English in order to follow discussion of important political issues in newspapers and magazines, as well as radio broadcasts and television programs, especially debates among candidates.

4. I'm rather certain that Department of Justice staff and the staff at municipal jurisdictions have much more higher priority issues to deal with than dealing with this subject. Reverting to English only would enable the Department and municipalities to either save money on outsourcing translating work, and staff through layoffs or shorter hours, or giving their staffs more productive higher priority work assignments.

5. The current selection of which foreign languages should be required in each jurisdiction seems rather arbitrary and inconsistent among jurisdictions. It would be much simpler and more democratic if only English is used, rather than having to make an arbitrary decision on whether Cambodian, Tagalog or Armenian should be the third, fourth or fifth foreign language, and be subject to criticism by those whose language was not selected for whatever reason.

6. Those voters who aren't proficient enough in English, and need some help, can certainly find family members, friends or neighbors to help them better understand the ballots and voter information guides as needed. Not only can this efficiently replace the foreign language information without using more scarce taxpayer funds, and encourage them to better learn English, it can serve as a good means to stimulate discussion of political candidates and issues, and hopefully thereby get more citizens to vote, something that's really needed in this country.

Like with the majority of our public policy issues, the present practice of multiple language ballots will likely not change unless effective and urgent political pressure is applied by our media and the public. I therefore encourage my readers to take action. I fully realize that there are higher priority issues we need reform on, but this is so obvious and simple. As I said, this is a no-brainer!

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