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Prof. Maceri's special column
Voting Rights in Español
Special Contribution
By Domenico Maceri
An Asian voter with her husband in the US

"It was my first time voting, and I never even got to touch the ballot," stated the naturalized citizen in a recent election in Boston. Apparently, election officials seized the ballot, selected some candidates, and placed it in the scanner.

It may have been one of many other irregularities in the election. In fact, the number of complaints about naturalized citizens' voting rights have prompted the United States Department of Justice to sue the city of Boston.

Although 40 years have passed since Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, irregularities in voting continue to limit people's opportunities to exercise their rights.

One of the problems in the city of Boston was the violation of voting rights of limited English speakers.

The Voting Rights Act includes a provision about the need to translate ballots and election materials if significant numbers of limited English speakers reside within a county. If more than 5 percent or 10,000 voting-age citizens in a county don't speak English "very well," according the US Census figures, and are fluent in another language, election materials need to be translated.

The law applies to Spanish, Asian, American Indian and Alaskan native languages because their speakers were recognized as having suffered discrimination and exclusion. The provision about language voting rights is often ignored or goes largely unmet.

In part it's due to the cost. Although the federal government passed the law, it's up to the local counties to find the money to provide the services. Thus, Boston's problems with limited English-speaking voters are not unique.

In 2004 San Diego County apparently was in violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act because it did not offer enough support to voters with limited English skills. The County agreed to do better and promised to hire 900 Spanish-speaking poll workers for the November 2nd election.

Adding ballots in languages other than English might increase the cost of printing election materials from 15 to 40 percent. Adding bilingual poll workers adds to the expense.

Cost is a definite concern, but some people have other strong reservations. Some object to the very idea of ballots in languages other than English. Some people fear that voting in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, or whatever second language the law might require, will result in the beginning of a slippery rope which will Balkanize the country and lead it the same path as Canada into a possible break up.

These fears are unfounded since no such danger really exists. Ballots and services in languages other than English help recipients of these services to become full-fledged Americans.

The ability to vote in Spanish or some other language makes people more American not less.

Voting is a right for legal citizens whether they are born in the US or naturalized. There is no literacy test. If there were such a test, a significant number of native-born Americans would probably fail it.

Indeed, in the history of our country, literacy tests have been used to prevent people from voting.

We want all legal citizens — whether born in the U.S. or naturalized — to be able to vote. And in general steps are taken to eliminate barriers. For example, we send absentee ballots to those who find it inconvenient or difficult to get to the polling places. We provide access to people with disabilities and assistance is given to enable them to vote. Translating ballots as required by law is just another step to make sure people's voices are heard.

In 2004 the Board of Supervisors of Ventura County adopted a plan which used bilingual county employees as poll workers on election day. In addition to their standard salary, these individuals received a $90.00 supplement..

It was a smart use of personnel resources. Ultimately, however, it's the federal government that needs to act. It needs to provide stable and equitable funding to all counties to make sure that every vote really counts.

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Domenico Maceri, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers including Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Japan Times, and The Seoul Times. Some of his stories won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.






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