Tucson, Arizona | Published:
WASHINGTON - Congress is considering whether to renew a 30-year-old requirement that large communities of people who speak limited English must have access to ballots in their native language.
In a hearing Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee's panel on the Constitution, some argued that lawmakers should expand the requirement to include more jurisdictions. Others urged them to scrap it as an unconstitutional and costly burden on states.
The bilingual ballot section, which was added to the Voting Rights Act in 1975, is one of two key portions of the law that expires in 2007 without congressional action. Also expiring is a requirement that states with a history of racial discrimination get federal approval to change their election laws.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said that if most immigrants must prove they can speak English to become citizens, that should also be the test for voting.
However, defenders of the requirement responded that the question isn't whether most of these voters can speak basic English but whether they can adequately comprehend confusing ballot language.
"They are American citizens, they are United States citizens, and they should be allowed to vote just like anybody else," said Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C.
Under the requirement, known as Section 203, local jurisdictions must provide bilingual ballots and election materials if more than 5 percent of the voting age population or at least 10,000 citizens fall into a certain language minority group. The illiteracy rate of the minority group must also be higher than the national average.
The Justice Department has identified 296 jurisdictions meeting this requirement. Only four minority groups are covered: American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan natives and Hispanics.