Language Matters In Politics

Posted by Jay McAninch on April 27, 2012 in Business, Political and Election Briefings

As we start down the home stretch toward November’s election, the balance of power in the White House, the Senate and House of Representatives is up for grabs. With growing numbers of non-English-speaking groups becoming a factor in political races, how do we ensure all U.S. citizens have effective opportunities to register, learn the details of elections, and cast free ballots in this important election?

I ask because I noted a headline from California last week in which the secretary of state announced that voters could participate in elections in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog or Vietnamese. New Web pages will provide registration forms, voting advice, instructions for voting by mail, and other useful voter information. In addition, oral assistance will be available at the polls to help those who find written materials confusing.

Just so we’re clear, written and oral assistance will also be available in English, but I wonder why we simply don’t require English as the only option at polls. By offering so many language choices, how can we be sure the assistance non-English voters receive – especially oral assistance – doesn’t influence their votes? After all, a fine line separates assistance from influence.

Imagine going to the polls and seeing a Spanish-speaking volunteer assisting voters who don’t speak English. Imagine, too, if you couldn’t understand what the volunteer was telling one of your fellow voters. I oppose voter discrimination, but how can we know if the volunteer is giving the voter helpful instructions or steering electoral decisions?

In the last election, 248 jurisdictions (states and counties) were required to provide language assistance for voting. This included 188 in Spanish, 22 in Asian languages, and 38 in Native American and Alaskan native languages. Minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which have been in effect since 1975, mandate that jurisdictions provide registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance and other materials related to the election process, including ballots in the language of the applicable minority group. The affected jurisdictions are determined by ethnicity figures. Language assistance is required by federal law when more than 5% of the voting-age population, or 10,000 citizens of voting age, are members of a single-language minority living in a jurisdiction. It’s also required when English proficiency and illiteracy rates of a minority group are higher than the national rates.

I believe the language of politics should be English to ensure all voters can read and understand the same information, regardless of how they receive it. That single act would remove any potential for partisan advocates to assemble voting blocs based on language. It would also remove any need for oversight and monitoring to ensure translations provide instruction and information, not guidance and persuasion, no matter how subtle.

Apparently, members of Congress agree, as demonstrated by the more than 700 members who have co-sponsored English language legislation dating back to 1981. The current bill, the English Language Unity Act of 2011, is sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) as HR 997, and Sen. Jim Imhofe (R-Okla.) as S 503. The bill has 113 co-sponsors. This legislation would make English the language in all official government activities, including voting. It sounds like a no-brainer, but given today’s politics regarding race and ethnicity, this legislation reportedly has little chance of passing.

Meanwhile, the 2010 census reported 80.3% of U.S. residents speak English, 12.3% speak some variation of Spanish, 3.7% speak a European language (German, French, Italian, Scandinavian, Slavic, Baltic or Iranian), 3% speak an Asian language (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and languages of Asia and the Pacific), and 0.7% speak native American or Alaskan, Arabic or Hebrew, or another indigenous language. Of non-English speaking residents, 3% did not speak English or did not speak it well.

The number of citizens needing voting assistance is small but, unfortunately, most non-English speakers live in communities dominated by their ethnic group, usually in metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago – all strongholds of the Democratic party. Will the GOP soon insist on monitoring all such instructions with their own translators? And when party allegiances shift in the future, will Democrats insist on monitoring presumed-GOP translators? As I compiled this information, I became less concerned about voter discrimination and more concerned about voter influence.

Although this issue is sensitive, it will grow in importance as we scrutinize future elections. Minority voting blocs are common topics in the media, yet I’ve not seen reports on what assistance non-English speaking citizens receive at the polls. Granted, monitoring these situations will be tough. When does oversight become voter discrimination in an age where governments seemingly try to accommodate everyone? These days you can get a driver’s license and participate in court proceedings without speaking English. Therefore, without speaking a word of English, you can obtain the most common form of legal identification and gain access to our legal system, where you’re entitled to the same freedoms and rights granted to most Americans.

I fear it might be time to get out those foreign-language tapes so I can protect my future and my family’s at the ballot box.