Voting in Navajo
Reconsidering the Voting Rights Act.


Peter Kirsanow

Congress is on the road to reauthorizing certain core provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Few pieces of legislation have matched the act’s success. Fewer still have been the subject of as much demagoguery.

The pre-clearance requirements contained in section 5, the minority language requirements of Sections 4(f)(4) and 203, and the voting examiner and observer authorizations of Sections 6 through 9 are set to expire on August 6, 2007. Reauthorization of each of these provisions raises a variety of substantive issues.

The voting-rights landscape has changed considerably since the act’s passage more than 40 years ago. Some maintain that the types of rampant racial discrimination and disenfranchisement the act was designed to address have been either eliminated or reduced to the point that portions of the act are obsolete or superfluous. Others contend that the discrimination and disenfranchisement still exist, just in cleverer, subtler forms. And there’s also a contingent that asserts, irresponsibly, that the expiration of the act’s temporary provisions is tantamount to a repeal of the 15th Amendment; i.e., the franchise will be taken away from blacks. (As bizarre as that may seem, it’s a theme that’s been surprisingly widespread among the black electorate over the last several election cycles.)

Most of the public debate regarding reauthorization has centered upon Section 5’s requiring that certain jurisdictions subject to Section 4’s coverage formulas seek approval from the attorney general or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before implementing any change in voting practices or procedures. But the immigration debate that promises to occupy Congress this summer will also direct attention to the minority language requirements in Sections 4(f) and 203, and deservedly so.

Jurisdictions covered by sections (4)(f)(4) and 203 must provide voters election information in at least one language other than English. The coverage formulas for the two sections differ, but together their minority language requirements cover hundreds of jurisdictions in more than 30 states.

Spanish is by far the most common minority language required. Other languages include American Indian languages, Alaskan native languages, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, to name just a few. When a minority language doesn’t exist in written form, such as the Native American languages of Navajo and Zuni, oral information must be provided.

The Justice department has filed approximately 20 lawsuits over the years to enforce the minority language requirements. Most of the suits pertain to jurisdictions in the southwest. The Justice department also has interposed a number of Section 5 objections to language changes adopted in jurisdictions such as Texas and Arizona. The department has recently expanded its deployment of election monitors to evaluate minority ballot language requirements.

The last time the General Accountability Office assessed the costs of Section 203 bilingual voting assistance was in 1997. Costs varied by jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions were able to reduce costs by using volunteer bilingual poll workers. Large jurisdictions, however, are often confronted with providing assistance in far more than just one additional language. Los Angeles spent $1.1 million for multiple language assistance in the 1996 elections alone.

It’s estimated that affected jurisdictions spend approximately 13 percent of all election expenses on minority language assistance. Congress has heard testimony that minority language assistance requirements waste limited election resources on materials that are of marginal utility or that are very seldom used.

Another problem is that it doesn’t appear that any resources are directed toward detecting and preventing fraud related to bilingual election requirements. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that minority language voters are steered to vote the “right” way, or are given inaccurate or incomplete information by poll workers.

A more fundamental problem voiced by some critics of minority language requirements is that they’re antithetical to basic notions of participatory democracy: since some degree of English proficiency is a requirement for U.S. citizenship and citizenship is a requirement for voting, a voter should be presumed to be able to cast a ballot without resort to a language other than English. Supporters of bilingual ballots would argue that minimal English proficiency is insufficient to comprehend all ballot language–the sur-reply being that ballot language is equally opaque in any language, so stick to English.

It’s a safe bet that Congress won’t reconsider the use of bilingual ballots. Nonetheless, because of concerns about effectiveness, accuracy, cost, and fraud, the issue merits serious examination.

—Peter Kirsanow is a member of the National Labor Relations Board. He is also a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. These comments do not necessarily reflect the positions of either organization.