COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE HAWKINS

English-language ballots should be the standard

There are areas of some cities in which most of the posted signs are in Spanish, Vietnamese or Chinese, to name a few. This may put many English only readers at a loss.

No big deal. In fact, it is a testament to the continued diverse nature of our population, a diversity that generates new ideas and new directions. It is not an issue for me and shouldn’t be for anyone else.

I took a year of Spanish when I was in high school, a year of Russian in college, and several weeks of focused Vietnamese language study. None of it took.

That later training was courtesy of the Navy. Our Vietnamese teachers, as I remember, had a lilting inflection as they spoke, but that is about all I have retained -- hat and maybe how to order a beer.

My Vietnamese language retention failure may be due to the distractions in that class were overpowering. Our instructors were attractive Vietnamese women in beautiful long dresses; it was difficult to focus on the lessons.

There is no such excuse for my inadequacy in Spanish or Russian. I have just a rudimentary ability to understand Spanish, and the only Russian I can follow is a few carefully explained words by my bilingual wife, whose English is excellent and whose Russian, her first language, is a bit rusty but certainly up to par for communicating with anyone who speaks that language. That all makes me well aware of the difficulty of learning a new language.

I don’t mind not being able to read the signs in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I generally don’t have cause to shop there and if I do I likely can find someone to help me with translations.

My trips through areas where Vietnamese or Spanish, or any other language that is not English dominates the advertising, are short. If I were to need help, I can ask for it, or download a cell phone app. When I go to a voting precinct, however, the various language ballots are an affront.

Since 1907, the United States has required immigrants to learn English in order to naturalize and acquire the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote in federal elections.

When my wife’s parents brought their family to the United States in 1951, no one in that group of five spoke English. By the time they achieved U.S. citizenship their English could handle everyday issues and by then their kids had a very good grasp of the common language of their adopted country.

Once they were citizens, my wife’s parents voted in every subsequent election. English is a tough language to take on as a second way to communicate, but her folks did not demand ballots in Russian. They took Alla to the voting booths with them. She translated.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act eliminated some bias. The act prohibited state and local governments from denying the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

As well it should have. The Constitution guarantees U.S. citizens, all of them, the right to vote in this country.

In 1975 Congress made some changes to the voting rights act, including the insertion of protections for “language minorities.” A person still needs an ability in the English language to be a citizen, but apparently, that is no longer a requirement if that person wishes to vote.

My wife Alla has worked nearly every election since 2002. During the last election there were, at the location for which she is responsible, five different language ballots for each of the five political parties listed.

Taxpayers pay for that to accommodate people who are supposedly citizens but can’t, apparently, speak English well enough to use a ballot written in English.

The 1975 action by Congress was intended to be a temporary measure, presumably to let people improve their English to a level which would allow them to use a ballot written in English. This temporary measure has been extended three times, this time to stay on the books until 2031.

If you must speak, read and write English to be a citizen, for whom are we making this very expensive accommodation?

If one is serious about taking advantage of the opportunities in America, where the predominant spoken and written word is in English, where is the need? Alla’s parents worked it out.


George Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

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1 UserComments
Michael Englehart 12:00am June 20, 2015

One essentially doesn't need to be "proficient in the English language" if one may be expected to reliably vote Democrat. I'll bet the extensions would not have passed if the immigrants who don't bother learning English reliably voted Republican.