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New Voting Rights Debate

Language A Question In Extending '65 Act

May 9, 2006
By DAVID LIGHTMAN, Courant Staff Writer

When Latino voters go to Hartford's polls this summer and fall, federal law requires that Spanish-speaking observers will be present to help them read the ballot and understand the voting procedures.

But that guarantee - now the law in seven Connecticut cities and more than 400 other areas around the country with large Hispanic populations - expires next year.

Washington lawmakers plan to begin writing an extension this week, but they could face trouble.

"I'm not favorably impressed with that provision," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "People should come to America and be American and learn English. And they can't do it if people live as though they're part of a subculture."

Supporters of the extension, including Connecticut Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, counter that the government should do everything possible to encourage all eligible citizens to vote.

Joyce Hamilton Henry, executive director of Democracy Works, a Hartford-based nonprofit group that works to encourage voter participation, agreed, saying that with Connecticut's Spanish-speaking population growing, "This isn't even an issue that should be debated."

But Cornyn has at least 56 House members and a handful of senators on his side, and some local officials from around the country have told lawmakers they have grave concerns about the law.

Among them is cost. Complying with the language law could "cost us over $20 million per election, incite anti-immigrant feelings and give the voter pamphlet the bulk of a phone book," Orange County, Calif., Supervisor Chris Norby told a House hearing last week.

Political Inclusion

Help for Spanish-speaking voters is part of the Voting Rights Act.

The landmark civil rights law, enacted in the wake of the brutal 1965 attack by local officials on civil rights advocates in Selma, Ala., was designed to ease the way for blacks to vote in the South, where white politicians made it hard for them to vote by imposing poll taxes, literacy tests and other obstacles. Its key provisions, including aid for Spanish-speaking voters, are due to expire in August 2007.

The law, along with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, "transformed the landscape of political inclusion," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In 1964, about 300 blacks had been elected to office around the country. Today the figure is about 9,100, including federal, state and local officials.

Yet fears remain that if the act's major provisions are allowed to expire next year, members of minorities will face difficulty voting. "You wish you didn't have to renew the act, but that's the reality," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn.

The key provisions require communities with histories of racial discrimination, mostly Southern states - but including 10 towns in New Hampshire and three counties in New York - to get federal approval for any changes in voting procedures.

As the nation's Hispanic population grew, lawmakers found Spanish-speaking voters were having the same kinds of problems with ballot access blacks faced. So Congress added a section to the law in 1975 to provide help for certain "language minorities," including Spanish speakers, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives.

The change required that ballots be available in the native language, and that helpers be available in areas where more than 5 percent of the voting-age population belongs to "a single language minority community" and has limited English proficiency.

Communities are re-evaluated after each census. In Connecticut, seven now qualify: Hartford, Bridgeport, Meriden, New Britain, New Haven, Waterbury and Windham. Before 2000, four communities were on the list.

In addition to the federal requirement, Connecticut regulations say similar assistance should be available in areas where at least 1 percent of the population speaks another language, and that applies to 49 additional towns and cities. If the help is not provided, state officials said, the state can file a lawsuit.

Fernando Betancourt, executive director of the Connecticut Latino & Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, said recent arrivals "are still unfamiliar not only with the language, but with the system."

While new citizens have to demonstrate proficiency in English, he said, that does not mean they understand the nuances of a ballot. Betancourt compared it to a tax form, where people who speak fluent English may still need help.

A Linguistic Divide

But renewing the law remains politically treacherous in some parts of the country because, as Dodd put it, "people are trying to piggyback on the emotions generated by opposition to illegal immigration" and on the push to make English the official language.

"Part of the immigration debate has been just how divisive this language issue has been," Cornyn said. "I know it can be hard for people who cannot speak English, but we have to encourage them to learn."

In the House, 54 Republicans and two Democrats echoed these thoughts in a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, calling the extension's help for Latinos "a waste of taxpayer funds" and "an affront" to immigrants who have mastered the English language.

"Multilingual ballots encourage a linguistic divide in our nation," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a judiciary committee member, "and discourage law-abiding immigrants from learning English to naturalize and assimilate into our society."

Norby, the California official, said the cost of complying in his county of 3 million people could be better spent to teach people English.

And the costs could mount, he cautioned.

If current standards are left unchanged, he said, "after the 2010 census, my county could be required to print ballots in Tagalog, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and Farsi, depending on future immigration patterns."

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, though, reports that in a 2005 study of election officials in the 31 states covered by the language law, nearly 40 percent said they incurred no additional costs for the aid. Most of the other jurisdictions, including Connecticut, estimated additional costs were less than 3 percent of their election budgets.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., picks his words carefully as he defends the extension, noting that people who come from other countries and want to achieve the American dream need to learn to speak English. But, he added: "This [law] deals with the right to vote. These are U.S. citizens. ... It seems to me these people should not be confused because they don't have the proper instructions, and cannot vote for the candidate of their choice."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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