Multiple-language Ballots

by on March 29, 2007 · 4 comments

I’ve been reading through last week’s testimony on the Holt bill, and I’m learning that one of the major concerns for designing an election system is ensuring accessibility to non-native voters with limited English skills.

I’m normally pretty hostile to nativist English-only movements. If people want to speak Spanish, or Chinese, or Klingon in their private lives, that’s their business. And if a significant number of citizens are most fluent in a language other than English, I see nothing wrong with the government offering services in other languages. Just today my colleauge Sarah Brodsky did an excellent post about a protectionist effort to require English fluency to be a commercial driver in Missouri.

However, I still have trouble seeing a strong argument for accommodating voting systems for non-native speakers. American politics, at least at the federal level, is overwhelmingly carried out in English. If your grasp of English is so weak that you have difficulty deciphering a ballot, then chances are you’ll have an equally difficult time following contemporary political debates. And if you can’t follow the debate, you’re not likely to make very sensible choices in the ballot box.

I certainly don’t think the federal government should prohibit states from offering multi-lingual voting systems. But I also don’t think it makes sense to require states to accommodate non-English speakers. For states whose politics are carried out almost exclusively in English (which I believe is all of them outside of Florida and the Southwest), I think it’s perfectly reasonable for ballots to be exclusively in English.

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