Iowa Congressman Steve King has lost his bid to get rid of the federal requirement that Election Day ballots be printed in foreign languages in sections of the country where there are large groups of non-English-speaking residents.
“The Voting Rights Act was established in 1965. In 1975 — not as an original part of the act itself but, as I would say, a decades-old afterthought — came this imposition of foreign language ballots,” King said. “That came in as a temporary measure.” During debate in the U.S. House on Thursday afternoon, King argued it’s time for the federal government to drop its “arbitrary” rule that forces local governments in parts of the country to provide voters with foreign language ballots. “The federal government doesn’t need to be imposing foreign language ballots on any locality anywhere in this country. They can make those decisions locally,” King said.
According to King, naturalized citizens don’t need a ballot printed in their native language because they’ve had to demonstrate proficiency in spoken and written English. King said U.S. citizens who’re born here, but who have lived in a home where English isn’t the primary language, can take someone with them into the voting booth to interpret the ballot.
King ridiculed the current federal rules which use “surname analysis” to determine which areas of the country are required to print and offer voters foreign language ballots. “We have a computer program that sorts the last name of people. If it kicks out that a certain percentage of them have a Spanish last name or a Chinese last name, then there will be foreign language ballots that go to those districts whether everyone there maybe came here with Cortez,” King said. “That’s how bad it’s gotten. It’s been abused.”
One Democrat called King’s proposal a “literacy test” but King, a Republican, was opposed by not only Democrats but by Republican leadership, although many Republicans voted on the losing side with King. Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, said King’s proposal which was offered as an amendment would have been a “poison pill” to the bill that reauthorizes the Voting Rights Act. “Let me make this clear: this amendment and the Voting Rights Act have nothing to do with illegal immigrants voting. Illegal immigrants are not eligible to vote. We are dealing with people who are United States citizens,” Sensenbrenner said. “United States citizens ought to have their right to vote protected even if they’re not proficient in English.”
King denied his proposal targeted “illegals.” King said he was being “stereotyped” by his opponents.
Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican, said foreign language ballots are particularly important in places like California which holds referendums on complicated issues. “The intricate complexity of many ballot initiatives cannot be understood by those who understand minimal English,” Sensenbrenner said. “Many ballot initiatives include triple-negatives that confuse even fluent English speakers.”
Another Republican, Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana, said voting was a “sacred” right for U.S. citizens and the government should ensure those who aren’t fluent in English have access to a ballot printed in a language they can read. “We ought to do everything that is necessary in our power to make sure that Americans can exercise their blood-bought, God-given right to vote in an informed manner,” Pence said.
Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida said giving foreign language ballots to those who can’t comprehend English is a matter of fairness. “I really think that the fairer that we are as a society, the greater we are,” Diaz-Balart said. “The more fair our country is the greater our country is and this is an example.”
But King had a few GOP colleagues who rallied at his side, including Republican Dan Rohrabacher, a California congressman, who said “bilingual ballots” should be outlawed. “We’re hurting America by making it easier for people not to learn English. We’re hurting those people by not giving them an incentive to learn English,” he said. “This is multiculturalism at its worst.”
Under the current law, when the Census Bureau estimates five percent of a state’s population primarily speaks a language other than English then all the precincts in that state must provide ballots printed in that other language.