Rep. Mike Coffman’s intent to repeal the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act is not only ill-conceived but places the rights of millions of U.S. citizens in jeopardy.
In 1975, Congress expanded the Voting Rights Act by adding language assistance amendments. The effort was spearheaded by Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn. Congress added Sections 203 and 4(f) to provide targeted oral or written language assistance to American citizens of voting age who were not fluent in English after finding that the denial of the right to vote among limited English-proficient citizens was “directly related to the unequal educational opportunities afforded them, resulting in high illiteracy and low voting participation.” According to the 2000 Census, three-quarters of all voters covered by Section 203 were native-born, voting-age citizens.
Section 203, the part of the act that Coffman wants to remove, is based on the 14th and 15th Amendments, which guarantee “equal protection and the right to vote without regard to race, color, or previous conditions of servitude.” Consistent with our constitution, Section 203 “prohibits discriminatory practices and procedures that effectively exclude language minorities from participating in the electoral process and provides for appropriate remedies.”
Language minorities are defined as “persons who are American Indian (Native American), Asian American, Alaskan Natives, or of Spanish heritage.”
New American citizens are required to be proficient in English but not fluent. Even for native English speakers, ballots and voting instructions can be difficult to understand. Despite Coffman’s assertions, our country needs voters who are able to cast informed ballots. The language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act help voters cast informed ballots.
With regard to Coffman’s concerns about costs, a 2005 study of election officials in the 31 states covered by Section 203, a majority of jurisdictions reported that they incur no additional costs for providing oral or written language assistance, with most of the remaining jurisdictions incurring additional expenses of less than 1.5 percent for oral language assistance and less than 3 percent for written language assistance. These findings are consistent with the findings in two GAO studies in 1984 and 1997.
Congress has continually found that the four covered groups (Alaska Natives, American Indians, Asians, and Spanish Heritage persons) have faced and continue to face significant voting discrimination due to “unequal educational opportunities afforded them, resulting in high illiteracy and low voting participation.”