As Congress turns its attention to renewing expiring sections of the Voting Rights Act, there unfortunately have been some attempts to make foreign language ballot provisions of Section 203 a divisive issue. In part fueled by the immigration debate, some lawmakers seek to strip this provision from the Voting Rights Act reauthorization bill. We strongly disagree with their proposal and suggest that we place this decision into the context of broader principles that form the foundation of a successful election system.
The principle on which protections for racial minorities and persons with disabilities are based is clear and widely appreciated: every qualified voter should have an equal opportunity to cast a ballot. Even with the protections of Section 203, however, language minorities who are not fully proficient in English face significant hurdles. Unlike racial and disability minorities, for example, a given language minority must reach a threshold of either 10,000 voters or 10% of the electorate to trigger voter assistance from a jurisdiction. There is no such requirement that people in wheelchairs make up a critical mass in a jurisdiction before a polling place is made handicap accessible. Furthermore, we have long held that literacy in English cannot be used as a qualification for voting eligibility. Why would we treat English proficiency so differently? Once people have the right to vote for candidates and on ballot measures, shouldn't our goal be to ensure these Americans are able to cast a vote that accurately reflects their intentions? This has nothing to do with whether English should be encouraged in this nation or even become the nation's official language. This is about running fair and effective elections.
There may be differences in the resources needed to provide foreign language assistance and to make our voting process accessible to people with disabilities. It may be the case that our system as presently funded simply does not have the capacity to provide universal language assistance for every individual who would benefit from it, just as most states and counties choose not to provide voter guides to registered voters despite these guides' demonstrable value. But such decisions do not stand on a position of principle; rather, they should be a last resort when our elected officials choose not to invest adequately in our democracy.
FairVote believes our election administration policies need to move toward a goal of inclusion and a fully informed electorate, not in the opposite direction. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act should be renewed along with other expiring provisions of the Act as a fundamental and necessary starting point toward ensuring a right to vote for all citizens.