Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) introduced legislation to overturn part of the 1973 Voting Rights Act, which requires that areas with large minority populations make bilingual voting materials available.
“Whether or not dual-language ballots are used ought to be up to local election officials and shouldn’t be mandated by the federal government,” Coffman said in a news release.
Joe Megyesy, Coffman’s communications director, told Raw Story that the issue wasn’t that Coffman didn’t support voter access to ballots, but that he wanted districts to be allowed to decide for themselves whether to provide them.
“This is going to cost a lot of these counties on shoestring budgets, it’s going to cost them a lot of money, and he wanted to give them the opportunity to decide for themselves,” Megyesy said.
Under current law, if more than 5 percent of a district’s voting-age population or 10,000 people speak only one, non-English language and the illiteracy rate of that group is higher than the national average, the district must also provide voting materials in the group’s language. The requirement was renewed by the House and Senate for the next 25 years in 2006.
The numbers are taken from U.S. Census results, the most recent of which was conducted in 2010. This year, 16 Colorado districts — including Coffman’s, Arapahoe County — would have to provide the bilingual ballots, up from 10 districts that previously fell under the requirement.
According to Census findings, 20.8 percent of Arapahoe County residents said that a language other than English was primarily spoken in their home. (This is not the statistic that the bilingual ballot is based on, which was not available, but it’s a good indicator.) Megyesy said that the bilingual voting materials would cost Arapahoe County, Colorado’s third most populous, around $250,000 next election.
Coffman called the law an unnecessary unfunded mandate.
“Since proficiency in English is already a requirement for U.S. citizenship, forcing cash-strapped local governments to provide ballots in a language other than English makes no sense whatsoever,” said Coffman.
Natural-born citizens and those born to American citizens are exempt from the language proficiency requirement. Besides that, the idea behind the law is to allow voters to fully understand the measures on which they are voting, advocates in favor of the bilingual ballots said.
“There is a major difference between fluency and proficiency. Proficiency doesn’t mean you can read and write well enough to understand the ballots,” Polly Baca, co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, told Raw Story. “[Coffman] is part of a national strategy to limit access and representation of minority groups in the political process. It’s very insidious in terms of trying to deny access to Latinos in our democracy. What he’s doing is anti-democratic, and it’s opposed to everything this country stands for in terms of our interest in involving people and citizens in the political process. The people he’s trying to deny access to are all citizens.”
Baca was involved in the original passage of the bilingual ballot amendment to the Voting Rights Act, lobbying then-Sen. Walter Mondale (D-MN) as part of Latino political activist group El Congreso. Coffman’s proposal would be “catastrophically negative for the Latino community,” she said.
Rep. Peter King (R-NY) introduced a bill in July that would repeal the bilingual voting materials, as well as establish English as the official language of the United States. Megyesy said that Coffman was aware of King’s legislation, but had chosen to write his own bill rather than co-sponsor King’s. He would not provide rationale for the decision.
A group called ProEnglish, which advocates for making English the U.S.’s official language, welcomed Coffman’s legislation.
“The more the merrier,” said Phil Kent, a spokesman for the group. He added that ProEnglish prefers King’s bill, which has more than 100 co-sponsors. “I think — and ProEnglish thinks — that’s the best bill to eliminate the bilingual ballot requirement, and to make English the official language.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
This post was edited after publication to reflect additional interviews.