Voting Rights and Multilingual Ballots
AAs a person whose opinion on the value of voting in a capitalist democracy leans toward that expressed by the anarchist graffiti that reads: "If voting made any difference, it would be illegal," I am occasionally asked by people I meet whether or not I vote. The answer I usually give is yes, except when there is absolutely no one to vote for. I have found the latter to be the case in every US presidential election after 1972 when George McGovern ran against Richard Nixon. I always vote in local elections and even will hold my nose and vote in Congressional and Senate races. When I lived in California and Washington state, I always registered my approval or disapproval on the various initiatives put forth by citizens’ groups and corporate entities masquerading as such.
To use a baseball metaphor, I consider voting to be like the first strike thrown by a pitcher. For those that don’t know baseball rules, a pitcher must throw three strikes to get a batter out. So, if voting is the first strike, then pressuring elected officials via letters and other benign methods would be the second. The third strike would be protests in the street. To finish the metaphor, one must get that third strike to be effective and complete the task. So, when I vote I know the act is merely the beginning of a sometimes difficult process, with the difficulty depending on the strength of the opposition.
Anyhow, in many states in the United States there are multilingual ballots. The obvious reason for the ballots is so that all eligible citizens can understand who and what they are voting for. This mechanism was established in the 1975 extension of the 1964 Voting Rights Act that eliminated a number of practices designed by mostly southern US states to prevent African-Americans from voting. In the current congressional debate over the rights of immigrants a number of congresspeople (led by Paul King of Iowa) opposed to legalizing the status of immigrants illegally in the US have sent a letter to Representative Sensenbrenner asking him to include a clause ending the use of such ballots in whatever legislation dealing with immigration that the Congress ends up passing. To his credit, the habitually foul Sensenbrenner is on record favoring extending this particular section of the law (and the rest of the Act) until 2032.
In a recent column, the right wing columnist George Will (who writes interesting stuff on baseball but could otherwise be the reason Will Shakespeare wrote the line "A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,") agreed with the congresspeople that want multilingual ballots to end. The columnist’s argument is essentially this: how can citizens participate in the national conversation if they can’t understand it? As I stated above, Mr. Will has refined the art of the circular argument. After all, isn’t the very reason multilingual ballots were instituted was so that those voters whose first language is something other than English can understand the ballot and, consequently, the so-called national conversation?
The reality behind the letter sent by the fifty-six congresspeople asking for the end of multilingual ballots is that these men and women are not just against illegal immigrants, they are against all immigrants that have yet to assimilate. Furthermore, these congresspeople do not want those immigrants to assimilate. That is why they want to exclude them from voting. If they could, they would enact legislation that forbade them from living in the US, as well. Fortunately, such a law would require changing the US constitution–a fact that makes such a desire that much harder to turn into reality.
The history of voting rights in the United States has always been a battle between those in the propertied classes who wanted to keep the vote for themselves and those that wanted to extend the right to all citizens. Indeed, in the early days of the nation, it was not only just white males with a certain amount of property that were allowed to vote, the law actually gave those white men that owned slaves one-and-three-fifths of a vote. This is part of the reason the slave states had such a hold on the government in Washington, DC. One could argue that this legacy continues, despite the result of the War Between the States.
So, back to that baseball metaphor and those fifty-six congresspeople. Not only is it time to send their request to end multilingual ballots to the showers, it’s time to send the whole bunch of them into retirement. Don’t vote ‘em into the hall of fame. Vote them into the dustbin of history.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org