A democracy has many voices. Since it may also have a wide variety of immigrants, as the U.S. does, the government should speak to its citizens in their own languages. This logic led to a Spanish response to the president's State of the Union Address last month. It's also the logic behind multilingual ballots: Citizens should be able to vote in their own languages. But the multilingual logic is a poor expression of what it means to live in a democratic society.
The multilingual-ballots requirement was amended to the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) when the act was reauthorized in 1975, and it has remained law since then (the act was reauthorized again in 1982). Along with other key elements, minority-language provisions will expire in 2007, and Congress is now considering whether to reauthorize them. Fifty-six members of the House of Representatives recently asked the chairman of the Judiciary Committee to fight the renewal of multilingual ballots. But judging by the mood in the House hearings on VRA reauthorization, and the influence of reports like the one recently released by the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act, multilingual voting won't be going away anytime soon.
More than the provisions protecting linguistic minorities, what should vanish is the notion that citizens who vote in languages other than English, presumably because they can't speak English, are actually fully participating in our democratic system.
Several cases can be made against multilingual ballots. For one, they're expensive. The 2004-05 elections in Orange County, California, for instance, had a price-tag of $596,919 for non-English ballots. In 2005, the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters, also in California, tried to cut costs by asking residents to confirm in advance which language they'd like to vote in. But expenses alone aren't the main problem.
Some critics also say that encouraging people to remain in their own linguistic enclaves doesn't help for purposes of integration. A linguistic Babel will undermine our national unity. The notion, however, that the nation is going down a slippery slope and will soon become a multilingual republic is exaggerated. The dominant language is, and will be for a very long time, English.
And that's precisely the point: Civic participation requires knowledge of the English language. Only by knowing English can a person know what's going on socially and politically in America. Only a common language will allow him to communicate with fellow citizens beyond his own enclave. Democracy means much more than sporadically filling out a ballot.
How can someone know what's going on at the national level and participate in the debates on, say, immigration, health-care reform, national security and the economy, without knowing English? How will someone exercise one of the most fundamental rights and responsibilities of a democratic society: holding our representatives accountable? Political offices might have a link or two on their Web sites in Spanish. But the full weight of a politician's voice comes only in English.
Linguistic minorities are presumed to prefer voting in the language that they speak. Puzzlingly enough though, when immigrants become citizens, almost all of them have to learn English. And for good reason: Political and civic participation happens in English. Even those cases in which someone finds it necessary to vote in a language other than English — which is indeed sometimes necessary — shouldn't mislead us into thinking that widespread multilingual voting is beneficial. People may be able to vote without being fluent in English, but their democratic participation is limited. Only by learning the language can they, and future generations, become full participants in the system.
The VRA's linguistic provisions will most likely be renewed. But we shouldn't believe that multilingual ballots are a sign of political integration. In a society with many voices, if a person doesn't understand the common language, his voice won't be properly heard.
José Enrique Idler is an NRI fellow in political and social studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
By José Enrique Idler
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online