"SPANISH IS NOT LIABILITY AT BALLOT BOX IN U.S."
THE SAN JUAN STAR, VIEWPOINT, SUNDAY, JUNE 14, 1998, PAGE 116.
Writer Michael Kinsley, in an essay published in Time magazine on November 24, 1991, asserted that "America is not homogenous. We have no ethnic or religious bonds to unite us. We are proud of having built a working nation out of so many disparate parts, and proud of the tolerance that has made that possible."
The United States is, indeed, a tolerant nation. It has been more open to foreigners than any other nation in history. As a result, American cultural life in the late 20th century is, in the words of professor Todd Gitlin, "a stew pot of separate identities." It has also been depicted as a "democracy of nationalities," or as Walt Whitman said, a "nation of many nations."
Hispanics are an essential part of our multi-cultural nation, and their presence is increasing. Between 1970 and 1990, the Hispanic population almost doubled, from 4.9 percent to 9 percent. And between 1990 and 2020, it is expected to rise by almost three-quarters, to 15.7 percent. By 2013only 15 years hencethe Hispanic population is to surpass the black population.
Robert Suro, in his recently published book "Strangers Among Us" (Knopf 1998) has pointed out that: "No other democracy has ever experienced an uninterrupted wave of migration that has lasted as long and has involved as many people as the recent movement of Spanish-speaking people to the United States. Twelve million foreign-born Latinos live here."
At this time, Hispanics are still deemed to be a minority, but their presence is beginning to be felt across the nation. Professor Gitlin in his work "The Twilight of Common Dreams" (Holt 1995) has observed, "but minorities? They are something else. More than ever before in the United States, despite low numbers in most professions, minorities are visible in conspicuous places: as members of Congress, mayors, city council members. They are celebrities, sports figures, faces on television news. They are prize-winning authors and film directors, deans at elite universities."
Hispanics, both immigrants and native-born, form a significant part of the electorate in many important cities, among them New York, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles. Even without any further immigration, California is expected to become a Hispanic political bastion within the next two decades.
In the United States, there is no contradiction between the recognition of cultural differences and the affirmation of the right to vote. Our nation, Suro has said, "is enfranchising a large new group of people who have been marked as outsiders... Latin immigrants are on the brink of taking important steps that will define their place in American society for generations to come."
To enable Hispanics, as well as other ethnic groups whose command of the English language may be limited, to exercise their electoral rights, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and amended it in 1975. The bilingual voting assistance requirements of the act apply to ethnic groups in 422 "covered jurisdictions," most of which are counties, in 28 states. The minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act require states and jurisdictions that meet its coverage criteria to conduct elections in the language of certain minority groups in addition to English. The language minorities are defined as persons of Spanish heritage, American Indians, Asian Americans and Alaskan Natives.
The congressional intent in the provisions of the Voting Rights Act on bilingual assistance is to enable members of applicable minority language groups to participate effectively in the electoral process. To ensure compliance with the act, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is to oversee the implementation of the act in the states and counties covered. If any of them fail to comply with the act, the department may bring civil actions to attain compliance.
There is further protection for language minorities in several states, which have enacted laws requiring some form of voting assistance during the election process. One of those states is California, where it is required that minority language sample ballots be posted in the polling places in which it has been determined that such assistance is needed.
The State of New Jersey requires that bilingual sample ballots be provided in election districts where Spanish is the primary language of at least 10 percent of the registered voters. In those districts, it is also required that two Hispanics be appointed to the election district board. In Texas, the Lone Star State, the law requires that bilingual educational materials be provided in precincts where persons of Spanish origin or descent comprise at least 5 percent of the population. Other states, such as North Dakota and Colorado, also provide for assistance to Spanish-speaking voters when they enter the polling booth.
American democracy does provide for the effective participation of its citizens in the electoral process, even when some of those citizens are not proficient in the English language. Hundreds of thousands of voters in several states are unable to speak or write in the English language. Their language is the Spanish they learned in Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican republic and Puerto Rico. But their voting rights, as American citizens, are above and beyond their language skills. They can vote for the President of the United States, for the two senators of their respective states, for their congressmen, as well as for their state and local officials.
In terms of language, there are no barriers to Spanish-speaking American citizens in the exercise of their voting rights, unless they reside in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.