A perverse element of the Voting Rights Act makes the whole scheme possible, and, unfortunately, not even Republicans have been willing to challenge it.
Under the Act, jurisdictions whose population includes at least 5 percent of voting-age citizens who have limited English proficiency must provide ballots and other voting materials in other languages. Currently, about 500 jurisdictions are required to do so.
I have repeatedly testified before Congress against this provision. As I have argued, there are exceedingly few persons who are actually eligible to vote who can't understand English. English proficiency among U.S.-born Hispanics is virtually universal. And even among naturalized citizens, English proficiency is rarely a problem, since demonstrating English proficiency is required to become a U.S. citizen.
So how is it that so many jurisdictions end up having to provide materials in Spanish, Chinese and other languages, when so few eligible voters really need them?
It has to do with the way the government determines who is English-proficient and who isn't.
The Census Bureau, which is charged under the Voting Rights Act with determining which jurisdictions will be required to print bilingual voting materials, uses a remarkably dubious methodology to determine how many citizens are not proficient in English. Since 1982, the bureau on its census forms has counted those who are members of so-called language minorities and who say they speak English "well" as having limited proficiency. Doing so in 1982 tripled the number of jurisdictions forced to provide bilingual ballots.
In many places, these bilingual materials just sit unused during elections -- a waste of money that could be spent elsewhere. A 1997 General Accounting Office report noted that the printing of bilingual material accounted for half the election costs in those jurisdictions covered. And an earlier GAO study found that in most jurisdictions required to print bilingual materials, not a single person requested them. Could there be a more egregious waste of public funds?
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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