Mike Kueber's Blog

March 27, 2014

English-only ballots

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 10:40 am
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One day I was reading about the naturalization requirements for becoming an American citizen. One of the requirements is, “Be able to read, write, and speak English and have knowledge and an understanding of U.S. history and government (civics).”

Then the following question dawned on me – if naturalized citizens must be English speaking, why is it that some election ballots are required to be multi-lingual?

My guess – the Supreme Court – turned out to be wrong. Instead this new example of government stupidity comes from the Voting Rights Act. According to a Department of Justice website,  Congress amended the Voting Rights Act in 1975 by adding Section 203, to require as follows:

  • “The law covers those localities where there are more than 10,000 or over 5 percent of the total voting age citizens in a single political subdivision who are members of a single minority language group, have depressed literacy rates, and do not speak English very well.”
  • “Determinations are based on data from the most recent Census, and the determinations are made by the Director of the Census.”

The problem with this formulation is that the first dot point refers to “citizens” while the second dot point refers to census data, which scrupulously avoids any citizenship-based data because it doesn’t want to scare off illegal immigrants. That scruple results in notorious redistricting based on number of residents instead of number of citizens. Based on section 203, it also results in Spanish ballots for residents who have no right to vote.

Only in America.

February 19, 2014

50,000 watts of common thread

Filed under: Culture,Entertainment — Mike Kueber @ 11:55 am
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I recently bought Rosanne Cash’s wonderful new album, The River and the Thread.  As I was listening to one of the catchiest tunes, I heard her sing, “50,000 watts of common thread.”  What an interesting insight!  I assumed she was referring to the bond created by millions of listeners hearing country music or talk radio on one of America’s legendary 50,000-watt radio stations.

I’ve given some thought lately to the things that bind America together.  Of course, the most important ties are our nation’s history of achievement and our shared values.  But some of those shared values seem to be getting diluted, and I wonder if TV is partially responsible.  Because of cable TV, Americans no longer watch the same TV shows.  Further, the shows that are on TV are designed to attract narrow niches instead of the broad mainstream.

Other ties, however, remain strong, and an example of that is the English language.  Although multiple languages are beneficial to society, it is also great to have a single language that we all share (albeit with region-influenced dialects).  I think it is especially neat when a person of color speaks American without any trace of being an immigrant.  That reflects a country that is the ultimate melting pot.

Because I’m not good at hearing lyrics, I eventually read the Cash album jacket to learn a bit more about what Rosanne was writing.  Boy, was I surprised to learn the song is titled, “50,000 watts of Common Prayer.”  Oh, well, it was food for thought.

December 16, 2011

English as the official language of American government

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Law/justice,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 11:57 pm
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Nationally syndicated Hispanic immigration columnist Ruben Navarrette recently wrote a couple of complimentary columns about Newt Gingrich’s willingness to provide a form of amnesty to illegal immigrants who have deep roots in America – i.e., those who have been here for at least 25 years.

Gingrich appears to have thanked Navarrette for the salutary columns by giving him an interview, which resulted in another complimentary column by Navarrette in today’s San Antonio Express-News.  The column starts as follows:

  • “Newt Gingrich is building his campaign on being honest and direct with voters. And the current Republican presidential front-runner seemed to be both when he spoke to me recently.  This was not the Newt I interviewed in November 1998, when he was serving out his final days as speaker of the House.

The first half of the column focused on the immigration issue, on which Navarrette thinks Gingrich’s position is much better than President Obama’s.  The second half of the column focused on an issue on which Navarrette and Gingrich disagree – i.e., “making English the official language of government. Gingrich favors the idea, although it’s not a very good one.”  Unfortunately, Navarrette failed to adequately explain the disagreement.  Instead he provided the following scant description:

  • Navarrette – “I reminded the former assistant professor of history that this country has an ugly past when it comes to using language to pit groups of Americans against each other. I asked, how would he prevent history from repeating itself?
  • Gingrich – “Well, it’s pretty straightforward,” Gingrich said. “You’re either going to become a Tower of Babel and have total chaos. Or you’re going to have government in a language that has common access to everybody. … Let me ask you this: Why is it the burden of a local community to pay for an interpreter every time someone is brought into jail for being drunk? This has become a remarkably expensive item for local governments.”

Navarrette finished his fawning column by saying, “So, I asked Gingrich, as the country becomes more Latino, how can the Republican Party survive if it doesn’t moderate its tone on immigration and offer some real answers instead of sound bites?  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I think you just answered your own question.’  Darn. That’s not exactly direct. But it’s honest.”

Sounds like Ruben’s got a big case of man-love for Newt.  But his column did almost nothing to educate me on whether I should be for or against English as the official language of government in America.  The Republican Party has been arguing for this proposition for years, and the following is typical of the legislation that is routinely introduced in Congress, but has never been successful:

  • “The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the official language of the United States of America. Unless specifically stated in applicable law, no person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English. If exceptions are made, that does not create a legal entitlement to additional services in that language or any language other than English.”

For the pros and cons of English-only, I turned to USConstitution.net:

  • Cons.  The ACLU notes past efforts at English-only laws that abridged the rights of non-English speakers or which generally made life difficult for large non-English speaking populations (estimated at between 13.5% and 17.5% of the American population.)  The ACLU believes that English-only laws can violate the U.S. Constitution’s protection of due process (especially in courts where no translation service would be offered) and equal protection (for example, where English-only ballots would be used where bilingual ones were available in the past).
  • Pros.  Official-English proponents like U.S. English counter that their proposed laws generally have exceptions for public safety and health needs. They also note that such laws help governments save money by allowing publication of official documents in a single language, saving on translation and printing costs, and that official-English promotes the learning of English by non-English speakers.    Finally, U.S. English rejects the characterization of the proposed laws as English-only:
    • “English-Only” is an inaccurate term for any piece of official English legislation. [We] have never and will never advocate for any piece of legislation that bans the use of languages other than English within the United States. Please ensure that all references to U.S. English legislation and legislative efforts accurately reflect efforts to pass official English, not “English-Only.”

Of all of the websites that I visited, I was surprised that none of them mentioned that the ability to read, write, and speak English is required before an individual can become a naturalized citizen.  I think this requirement militates in favor of adopting English as the official language of the U.S.

Although Congress has never made English its official language, 32 states have – Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming.  Most of these states have adopted their laws since the 70s.

Unfortunately, Congress has limited the effect of states’ official-English laws by including problematic language in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This language requires that, in order to receive federal financial assistance, vital materials must be available in the language of everyone receiving benefits subsidized by the Federal Government.

I recently blogged about our constitutional government having states operate as laboratories of democracy.  It seems that states have concluded that official-English is an idea whose time has come, and it’s time for Congress to get with the program.