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
The Justice Department has identified 296 jurisdictions meeting this
requirement. Only four minority groups are covered: American Indians, Asian
Americans, Alaskan natives and Hispanics.