Thursday, May 25, 2006

Are Citizenship Tests Easier Than Voting?

George Will has an article out today which provides some interesting history and analysis of the role of the English language in political discourse:

In 1906, the year before a rabbi in a Passover sermon coined the phrase "melting pot" during torrential immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, Congress passed, and President Theodore Roosevelt signed, legislation requiring people seeking to become naturalized citizens to demonstrate oral English fluency. In 1950 the requirement was strengthened to require people to "demonstrate an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write, and speak words in ordinary usage in the English language."

Hence, if someone needs a ballot written in a language other than English, that need proves the person obtained citizenship only because the law was not enforced when he or she sought citizenship. So one reason for ending ballots in languages other than English is that continuing them makes a mockery of the rule of law, including even the prospective McCain-Kennedy law that pro-immigration groups favor.

It contains several requirements that those aspiring to citizenship demonstrate "a knowledge of the English language" or "English fluency" in order "to promote the patriotic integration of prospective citizens into the American way of life" and into "American common values and traditions." How can legislators support language such as that and ballots in multiple languages?

...what public good is advanced by encouraging the participation of people who, by saying they require bilingual assistance, are saying they cannot understand the nation's political conversation? By receiving such assistance they are receiving a disincentive to become proficient in English.

The problem comes from a 1975 amendment to the Voting Rights Act "requiring bilingual ballots in jurisdictions with certain demographic characteristics." As a practical matter, the use of non-English ballots is a bit strange. Besides the fact that American political campaigns and debate are conducted in English, ballots are very simple. They require little more ability than basic name recognition, a simple task for any informed voter. Even with English-only ballots, it should require far less understanding of English to vote than to pass a citizenship test.

Mr. Will also has some interesting comments on Senator Harry Reid's recent race-bating:

It takes political bravery to propose pruning the Voting Rights Act, given the predictable charges of racism that are hurled so promiscuously nowadays. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, for example, has a liberal's reflex for discerning racism everywhere and for shouting "racist" as a substitute for argument. During Senate debate last week on a measure to declare English the national language, he said: "While the intent may not be there, I really believe this amendment is racist."

Questions crowd upon one another. Was his opaque idea -- well, perhaps it is not opaque to liberals -- of unintentional racism merely a bow to Senate rules against personal slurs? What "race" does Reid think is being victimized? Are Spanish speakers members of a single race? Evidently Reid thinks something like that, because his next sentence was: "I think it is directed basically to people who speak Spanish." Indeed, it is, but what has that to do with racism?

Perhaps someone could provide the Senator with a dictionary, and a history lesson.

There is little doubt that much of the Voting Rights Act is outdated, but will Congress admit that? Don't hold your breath.


Bloodhound said...

I must say that I agree with MR Will as a nation we spend a lot of time trying to cater to those who are not citizens. Example when we go to the DMV to get licenses you would not expect to see the test being given in English and Spanish but it is. If you can not read English how can you read road signs and how do you know that you are suppose to have insurance on your automobile. And when you do get in an accident you are not able to communicate with the person you got into the accident with or the rescue personnel who are trying to assist you. And now you want to cater to them even more by making a multi lingual ballet why don’t we just change our national language to Spanish and get it over with.

Nick said...

The problem goes far beyond Spanish. The State of Washington, for example, offers voter registration in Spanish, Chinese, Cambodian, Korean, Laotian, Russian, and Vietnamese. The voter's pamphlet and other election documents are printed in Spanish and Chinese (so I suppose every campaign would have to hire two different translaters to make sure your statement gets translated correctly).

Road signs and general communication are great examples though. All this multilingual activity seems to be encouraging citizens to stay on the fringes of society (or enable illegal votes, but that's a whole different issue).