Thursday, May 25, 2006

Prohibiting Bilingual Ballots


George Will's latest column, A Vote For English, advocates against bilingual ballots for U.S. elections. He sneers at Alberto Gonzales, who has the temerity to disagree with him on this issue:
The federal government's chief law enforcement official may need a refresher course on federal law pertaining to legal immigrants.
Will points out that in order to be naturalized, the law requires that you "demonstrate an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write, and speak words in ordinary usage in the English language." To Will, this means that any person who cannot understand a Ballot that is written in English should not have been allowed to become a citizen. And to Will it inexorably follows that ballots should only be in English, apparently such that voting privileges are reserved to those who "can comprehend the political discourse that precedes the casting of ballot".

Okay... But Will has forgotten a few things. First, not everybody who has weak English language skills is an immigrant. Will may not like this fact, but not every person born in the United States grows up in an English-speaking household. Second, not every election requires that you be a citizen to vote. Some local elections, such as Chicago school board elections, do not require citizenship for participation. Third, communities with large populations of non-English speakers may end up with bilingual ballots even in the abence of a legal mandate as, despite the possibility of Will's disapproval, voters may demand them. The effect of English-only ballots would be felt most significantly by citizens who do not have sufficient political clout to successfully lobby for ballots in their language, which would seem to have the opposite effect of bringing marginalized people into the nation's "political discourse". Fourth, ballots may be available in English, but that English isn't always easy to understand even to a native speaker. Fifth, even if a citizen has weak English language skills, if that citizen is going to vote anyway, isn't it better for everybody else in the country that the citizen understand the ballot?

Oh, but if only we could live in an ideal world, where everybody wears neatly pressed suits, speaks fluent Englsh, and writes for the Washington Post.

As I have previously noted, George Will is preternaturally unable to make even a slight criticism of a Republican without savaging a Democrat. No exception here.
It takes political bravery to propose pruning the Voting Rights Act, given the predictable charges of racism that are hurled so promiscuously nowadays. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, for example, has a liberal's reflex for discerning racism everywhere and for shouting "racist" as a substitute for argument
Demonstrating his firm grasp of the English language, Will asserts the narrowest possible construction of the term "race" and "racism":
Was his opaque idea - well, perhaps it is not opaque to liberals - of unintentional racism merely a bow to Senate rules against personal slurs? What "race" does Reid think is being victimized? Are Spanish speakers members of a single race?
A more astute follower of the nation's civic conversation might recognize that the term "racism" is frequently used in contexts where the speaker is actually referencing "bigotry". Which is not to say that Will doesn't have a point buried in his vituperation. After all, you shouldn't attribute to evil that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. Or, in the case of Congress, political opportunism.

1 comment:

  1. And fifth, there are exemptions from the English-language requirements for certain groups wishing to become citizens, generally based on age, term of residency and infirmity. Does Will really mean that some citizens shouldn't be allowed to vote?

    (That's a rhetorical question. I know the answer is "Yes, starting with those who don't have Ivy League degrees.")

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