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On Bilingual Ballots

I've always thought of George Will's columns as a standing reminder of the dangers of overtightening a bow tie, and been content to leave it at that. But occasionally he manages to produce an essay that rises above this very high threshold of provocation, and his Washington Post column last week on bilingual ballots was a case in point.

Will's column questions the logic of offering voters bilingual ballots (which in the American political context means ballots with parallel Spanish and English texts), contending that their use flies in the face of laws requiring naturalized U.S. citizens to be proficient in English as she is written and spoke.

He writes:

"If someone needs a ballot written in a language other than English, that need proves the person obtained citizenship only because the law was not enforced when he or she sought citizenship. So one reason for ending ballots in languages other than English is that continuing them makes a mockery of the rule of law."

And further on:

"What public good is advanced by encouraging the participation of people who, by saying they require bilingual assistance, are saying they cannot understand the nation's political conversation? By receiving such assistance, they are receiving a disincentive to become proficient in English."

His argument boils down to two parts: first, that offering bilingual ballots somehow violates the rule of law, and second, that bilingualism attenuates American national identity.

On the first point Will is demonstrably wrong, no matter how you feel about being exposed to Spanish. He omits to mention that entire classes of legal immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship are exempt [pdf] from the language requirement: If you are old enough, and have lived legally in the United States long enough, you do not have to know a word of English (the requirement is 15 years of residency for applicants over 55, 20 years for applicants over 50). You might call this the 'grandma clause' in naturalization law. Applicants who have a mental or physical handicap that prevents them from learning English are also exempt from the language requirement.

Whether or not this is good law is immaterial; it is the law and therefore invalidates Will's argument that any voter requiring a non-English ballot must have cheated his way into citizenship. By presuming to lecture the Attorney General on this point, Will is demonstrating a surprising ignorance of the law whose sanctity he professes to defend.

But you don't even need to look at naturalization law to make a convincing case for bilingual ballots; all you have to do is look at the ballots themselves. Note that the language requirement for new citizens says this:

"Applicants for naturalization must be able to read, write, speak, and understand words in ordinary usage in the English language"

And so here is text from a ballot measure from Harris County, Texas:

PROPOSITION 8 The constitutional amendment providing for the clearing of land titles by relinquishing and releasing any state claim to sovereign ownership or title to interest in certain land in Upshur County and in Smith County

Here is part of a constitutional amendment put to Florida voters:

Proposing amendments to the State Constitution to require the sponsor of a constitutional amendment proposed by citizen initiative to file the initiative petition with the Secretary of State by February 1 of the year of a general election in order to have the measure submitted to the electors for approval or rejection at the following November's general election, and to require the Florida Supreme Court to render an advisory opinion addressing the validity of an initiative petition by April 1 of the year in which the amendment is to be submitted to the electors.

And a paragraph taken from another Florida ballot:

The Medical Liability Claimant's Compensation Amendment Proposes to amend the State Constitution to provide that an injured claimant who enters into a contingency fee agreement with an attorney in a claim for medical liability is entitled to no less than 70% of the first $250,000.00 in all damages received by the claimant, and 90% of damages in excess of $250,000.00, exclusive of reasonable and customary costs and regardless of the number of defendants. This amendment is intended to be self-executing. [YES / NO]

These are examples dredged up in a few minutes of Google searching, without making any effort to find difficult language. The excerpts are typical of American ballotese - what is being voted on will go directly into law, so it is written in highly specialized legal jargon.

It's not hard to imagine immigrants (or native speakers, for that matter) who could perfectly well understand "words in ordinary usage" but be completely at sea when it came to making sense of this kind of legalese. Is George Will really claiming that an inability to understand the special legal sense of 'interest' in the first example represents contempt for American civic life?

The insinuation that voters might want ballots in Spanish because they are cheating, lazy, bad people is malicious and wrong. You choose Spanish on your ballot for the same reason you might choose it in an ATM transaction - not because you have contempt for American civil society, but because you don't want to make a mistake. It's not as if we have to look very far back to find an example of a confusing ballot changing the outcome of a national election. People have reason to be careful.

The second argument Will makes - that bilingual ballots are a disincentive to learning English - is even more ludicrous than the first, betraying a complete ignorance of what it's like to live in the United States without speaking the language. If you don't know any English, you are limited to menial, blue-collar jobs, you have to rely on intermediaries for all your interactions with the world around you (try going to a doctor, getting dental work done, opening a bank account, understanding why the doctor and dentist won't see you), you are essentially helpless outside your insular immigrant community, and you are a tempting target for all kinds of scams and needless middlemen who will use your ignorance of the language against you.

The most cursory walk through a Hispanic neighborhood or glance at a foreign-language American newspaper will show you that there is a thriving market for English language lessons. The reason newcomers have so much trouble speaking English isn't because they are lazy or don't care; it's because they have discovered that learning a second language as an adult is very difficult, time-consuming and costly, particularly when you are working full-time at the kind of job that a non-English-speaking immigrant is likely to have.

None of this deters staunch defenders of the Republic like Will, who seem obsessed with the idea of newcomers getting some kind of cultural free ride.

Their linguistic fearmongering is harder to pull it off now than at the start of the last century, when there actually were entire American communities that never learned English and had their own civic conversation, in their own moon language. Curiously enough, these communities are mostly gone today through a remarkably effective assimilatory process called 'having children'. (Will implicitly recognizes this point by not even considering the question of native-born citizens who might want a Spanish ballot). The only groups that have been able to retain their language past the second generation are extremely tight-knit religious communities like the Hasidic Jews or Mennonites, who can harness the mighty power of a sky god to keep the kids isolated and fluent.

When Will laments that immigrants won't be able to understand the American 'civic conversation', what really seems to worry him is that they won't be able to read columns by George Will. And here he has a point. At a national level, the American civic conversation now consists of angry blowhards yelling at each other on television, a timid national press corps in comfortable symbiosis with the party in power, and an electoral system so exquisitely gamed that in any election year only a tiny minority of districts needs political attention. This is not so much a conversation as a monologue.

The place where American participatory democracy genuinely works is at the local level, where people elect schoolboards, aldermen, selectmen, decide on taxes and various ballot initiatives. This is the level where an ordinary citizen can reasonably expect to have his voice heard. Letting new citizens vote on these issues in their native language is not an abandonment of American civic values, but a powerful way of inculcating them in new arrivals, who might have no experience with government institutions that obey the rule of law or are actually held accountable to the people they serve. City and county-level politics are not glamorous, but they feature a system of fair local elections, independent courts and disinterested regulatory agencies that are an impressive achievement of our society.

The fact that local politics works, however messily, and that you have a voice in how your county, school, neighborhood, community and sometimes even state are governed, is the real assimilating force in American democracy. We haven't been able to scale it up to national size very well, but it is alive and healthy in our communities. And at that local level, there are plenty of places where the language of civic discourse is going to be Spanish, or Cantonese, or Yiddish.

If you've gone through the long process of acquiring American citizenship, you've had to sign an affidavit that you are not a Communist or sympathizer, you've promised under penalty of perjury that you will not indulge in drunkenness or immoral behavior while in the United States, you've sworn an oath of allegiance to the country, you've promised to join the military if directed to do so, you've abstained from marijuana, polygamy, illegal gambling, prostitution, and moral turpitude, you've demonstrated to an examiner that you can speak and write basic English, and you've passed a basic test on American history, government, and law. In other words, you've demonstrated a readiness to vote far beyond the one criterion required of native-born American voters - a pulse. The rational argument to make, if you are truly concerned about the tenor of the civic conversation, is that Americans born in the United States should be required to pass the same kind of screening process as naturalized immigrants.

But we're unlikely to hear this kind of bold proposal from George Will. Instead, in a time of intense nationalism, this Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist is fretting to his audience of millions about the dilution of American national identity. With a weekly column in the Washington Post and the chance to speak out on issues of pressing interest to conservatives, such as the government searching the entire population's phone records, an executive branch that believes it has the right to imprison American citizens indefinitely, or one of the many other adventures in government that have made writing opinion journalism under the Bush Administration such an easy and pleasant job, Will has instead chosen to open the nation's eyes to the peril of Latino grandmothers being given a legible ballot. If this is the national conversation he wants us to join, we're better off learning Spanish.


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