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Thank you, John Sterling

Bilingual Ballots Are a Bad Idea

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

At a time when many state and local governments cannot afford even necessary government programs, the Obama administration is about to force hundreds of jurisdictions to waste millions of dollars printing ballots in Spanish and other languages for voters who don't need them. Worse, some of these bilingual ballots may be used fraudulently to encourage people who are not citizens to vote illegally in next year's election.


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?

But the greater danger is that unscrupulous groups sometimes use these materials to facilitate voting by non-citizens. As I have testified, multiple instances of voter fraud have involved non-citizens voting -- by using bilingual ballots -- from Hawaii to Georgia.

So what can be done? The best thing would be to repeal the onerous provision -- but not even a Republican-controlled Congress has been willing to take on that fight. Short of repeal, the very least that should be done is stopping the Census Bureau from inflating the number of jurisdictions required to provide bilingual materials based on phony limited-English-proficient numbers.

The current chairmen of the House subcommittees charged with overseeing enforcement of the Voting Rights Act's bilingual provisions have asked the assistant attorney general for civil rights and the head of the bureau to abandon the flawed methodology now being used. In a letter this week, Reps. Trent Franks and Trey Gowdy urged the bureau to adopt the common-sense approach of considering anyone who says they speak English "well" on the Census form as English-proficient.


At least this standard would result in fewer unnecessary bilingual ballots from being printed. But the only way to stop this nonsense is to eliminate the requirement for bilingual voting materials altogether. Furthermore, there is another reason to oppose them: they balkanize our nation.

Our original national motto is "E pluribus unum" -- out of many, one. While we come from all over the globe, we are united as Americans. This unity means that we hold certain things in common. We celebrate the same democratic values, cherish our many freedoms, and champion equality under the law. Our common bonds must also include an ability to communicate with one another through a common language: English.

In our struggling economy, there is no better time than now than to stop wasting money on bilingual ballots.

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