Doing the right thing isn't easy

Posted: Nov 09, 2005 12:05 AM

The Voting Rights Act has long been regarded as one of the nation's most successful civil rights laws, ending decades of discrimination that disenfranchised millions of black voters in the Deep South. But Congress is now considering whether to extend certain provisions of the act, which would otherwise lapse in 2007. One provision, usually referred to as Section 5 of the act, requires specific jurisdictions to submit to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance any proposed changes in voting procedures, such as moving polling places or redrawing district boundaries. Another provision, known as Section 203 or the Bilingual Election Requirements, forces hundreds of jurisdictions across the country to print ballots in languages other than English -- an expensive and divisive practice. Neither of these sections of the act should be reauthorized, but Congress may find it difficult to do the right thing.
Section 5 was included in the original Voting Rights Act in 1965 because many Southern states consistently changed their voting laws and procedures to keep blacks from voting. In 1965, for example, only about 6 percent of blacks in Mississippi were registered to vote, having been subjected to literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation and even death threats to prevent them from voting. Yet only two years after Congress passed the act, some 60 percent of eligible black voters were registered.

 Now, 40 years later, many of the very jurisdictions subject to the onerous provisions of Section 5 are represented by black elected officials who clearly have no reason to try to change voting laws in order to discriminate against their fellow black citizens. It makes no sense to require jurisdictions that have long abandoned racial discrimination in voting to seek permission from Washington each time they want to move a polling place, extend voting hours or adopt more liberal registration procedures. Nonetheless, the NAACP and other civil rights groups will cry foul if Congress decides to allow this provision of the act to sunset -- as it was intended to even in the original act. Section 5 was supposed to be a temporary part of the law. It was first due to expire in 1970 -- but Congress then extended it, and again in 1975, 1982 and 1992, and it is up for reauthorization again in two years.

 Congress enacted the bilingual ballot provisions of the act in 1975, and they, too, were meant to be temporary but have become a permanent fixture of federal voting procedure in many areas of the country. Today, hundreds of counties in 30 states must provide election materials in several languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and various American Indian and Native Alaskan languages. According to a 1997 study by the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, Los Angeles County alone spent an additional $1.1 million to provide multilingual ballots, while two other California counties, Orange and San Francisco, spent another million, and New York City spent over half a million dollars. By 2002, L.A. County was spending more than $3 million on bilingual assistance. Yet many jurisdictions have little idea whether these congressionally mandated materials are even necessary, much less used.

 Congress passed the Bilingual Election Requirements in 1975 without any showing of widespread discrimination against so-called language minorities, mostly Mexican Americans at the time. Unlike blacks, Hispanics were never systematically excluded from voting, and even held elected office for decades in the Southwest. In the mid-'70s, two U.S. governors were Hispanic: Jerry Apodaca of New Mexico and Raul Castro of Arizona, a state that had fewer than 10 percent Hispanic population at the time. In addition, a U.S. senator, five congressmen, and hundreds of state and local officials were Hispanic. These statistics hardly show a pattern of denial of due process or voting discrimination -- the only constitutional bases on which Congress even has the authority to order states to provide bilingual ballots.

 Virtually all U.S.-born Hispanics, Asians and other native language minorities read English. What's more, all naturalized citizens, except for those over 50 years of age, must demonstrate an understanding of English to become citizens. Even if there are small numbers of citizens who need assistance in voting because they cannot read English, such assistance could easily be provided without requiring states to print ballots in multiple languages, through oral assistance or by letting private groups provide translated material. It's time Congress drop this requirement that does more to Balkanize America than it does to assist eligible voters. But not even the Republicans in Congress seem to have the stomach for this fight.