By Elizabeth Wong, Associate DirectorElection Day is just a few days away, and despite media reports of voter apathy, there are some voters who will always vote and will be excited to exercise their right to do so in a democracy. Some of these voters are the many immigrants who have stories like my grandparents. They came from other countries without democracies, learned basic English, became naturalized citizens and now take their civic responsibilities in the United States very seriously.
So, it is on behalf of citizens like my grandparents, that I must express my outrage upon reading Kerry Dougherty’s column “In plain language: Voters Should Know Their English” in the Virginian-Pilot. Dougherty argues that the government should not have to translate ballots and voting materials for voters for whom English is not their first language, but instead voters who, “lack rudimentary mastery of English that’s necessary to negotiate a ballot” should learn English.
Does Ms. Dougherty expect us to go back to having literacy tests? Or, is she only singling out the people who can’t read English perfectly not because of illiteracy, but because English isn’t their first language?
As Dougherty correctly points out, to become a citizen in the United States one must be able to “read, write, and speak basic English.” However, the language skills necessary to become a citizen are not necessarily sufficient to navigate a ballot, particularly if it includes a referendum measure or Constitutional amendment.
Politicians and legislators carefully craft their language for laws and sometimes the placement of a comma or use of one word over another can change the meaning of the law. Anyone who has read some of the bills proposed in the General Assembly can attest to the fact that more than rudimentary English skills are necessary to comprehend legislation, which in the case of amendments to the Virginia Constitution are also ballot measures.
All citizens have the right to understand for whom and what they are voting when they cast their ballots. This is why Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions with significant minority-language populations to print voting materials in both English and other needed languages. Over the years, this part of the VRA has served people like my grandparents well.
In a country where voter turnout hovers at about 60% during Presidential election years and under 40% during other federal elections, Ms. Dougherty shouldn’t be lobbying to make it harder for people to vote. Instead, voting and an informed electorate should be encouraged by giving people the necessary means to participate.
For a high school social studies assignment I once interviewed my grandparents about their immigration story and why they came to the United States. My grandmother told me she was escaping “red China” and wanted a better life. She told me that when she had children, she envisioned a life with more opportunities for them and that she had worked hard to give her children and grandchildren the best education she could. After becoming a citizen, she was sure to vote in every election because it made a difference. Moreover, she encouraged me to register when I came of age… and she never failed to remind me to vote as each election day approached.
My grandmother conveyed all of this to me in broken English, with the bits of the Chinese I couldn’t understand translated by my parents.
The United States doesn’t need its citizens to understand English to participate in the democracy. It needs more people like my grandmother who understood the value and importance of voting. It needs more people like my grandmother who encourage the next generation to participate and not become disillusioned and disenfranchised.