Thinking About the Voting Rights Act

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Jul 11, 2006 5:31 PM
All right, so say a Republican wants to debate changing certain parts of the Voting Rights Act before its renewal this week. Can he manage to push for that debate without being called a racist by the American Left? Do you think that's possible?

Oh, I wish I could say I thought it was. But, despite my uncharacteristically pessimistic mood today, let's get into it.

Rep. Steve King of Iowa spoke with a group of bloggers this morning about his efforts to do away with the federal mandate for foreign-language ballots. From a letter to Republican leadership, signed by 80 Members:

As you know, there are serious concerns about the VRA reauthorization, including renewal of the multilingual ballot provisions in Sections 203 and 4 (f)(4) of the VRA. These provisions were not part of the original VRA.

Multilingual ballots divide our country, increase the risk of voter error and fraud, and burden local taxpayers.

As it stands (and as I understand it), the VRA requires states and localities to provide multilingual ballots based on several criteria, which all sound equally ridiculous to me. One is that 5 percent of the population, according to the census figures, characterizes itself as speaking English "not at all," "not well," or "well." The only characterization on the form that is exempted from the multilingual ballot percentage is "very well," which would seem to put many more people than actually need a multilingual ballot into that category.

Second, localities do surname analyses to figure out if there are enough Hernandezes or Zhangs in an area to warrant ballots, with no regard for whether those folks may have immigrated years ago and speak English perfectly.

King is suggesting an amendment that would strip to federal mandate to provide such ballots, but would allow states and localities to continue to do it if they need to.

Human Events editorialized in favor of the amendment today:

King argued in his letter to the leadership that multilingual ballots
encourage cultural divisions and burden taxpayers. They also make a
mockery of the requirement that immigrants need “to read and understand
English in order to become naturalized citizens.” King later told HUMAN
EVENTS that reauthorizing the VRA for another 25 years with the
foreign-ballot mandates still in it “effectively institutionalizes them
in perpetuity in America.”

King is right. The House leaders
should allow a vote on his amendment. Foreign-language ballots will not
unite Americans, but divide them. A Republican Congress has no business
mandating them on local government.

The Heritage Foundation has its resource page on the VRA, here.

Tim Chapman blogs King's statement to bloggers on the idea.

I'm an English-first, end-government-waste, eliminate-voter-fraud, federalist kinda gal, so all this sounds pretty fine and dandy to me, though I am no expert on the VRA.

I'm, of course, open to arguments that this is not the right thing to do, provided that they don't start off by calling everyone who supports the idea a racist. But that may be too much to hope for.

All right, turning the optimism switch back on now. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we can have a reasonable discussion about what seems to be a reasonable proposal without throwing the "r"-word around.