- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

The House Judiciary Committee will face a tough battle in getting approval for an extension of the Voting Rights Act that includes current provisions for foreign-language ballots.

In a spillover from the raging immigration debate, many members of Congress are opposing an extension of Section 203. Critics of the provision say some immigrants are not learning English because the nation routinely provides them information in their native languages. Others said the provision is unnecessary, because most foreign-born voters can read English.

More than 50 lawmakers sent a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, urging him to strip Section 203 out of the bill, but he has refused.

“It is warranted and the evidence is overwhelming from the hearings, and there has been an opt-out provision in the law for some time,” he said. “If jurisdictions feel they have solved that problem for their voters, then they should work to opt out rather than strike out the entire provision.”

Reviewing Section 203 in a hearing yesterday, Orange County, Calif., Supervisor Chris Norby called for a review of the foreign-language provision.

“Accepting the naturalized voters’ self-description of their own English ability — speaking English ‘well’ or ‘very well’ should both be considered adequate — is the first thing we should do,” Mr. Norby said.

The law requires that any jurisdiction with 10,000 or more voters, or where 10 percent of the electorate is foreign-born and deemed not to be proficient in English, provide ballots and other election materials in the language native to that population.

Mr. Norby said Congress should eliminate the numerical threshold and have a set percentage higher than the current standard, and end the “insulting” practice of assuming that foreign-born voters are illiterate in English.

Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat and Judiciary Committee member, said the Section 203 dispute was becoming a deal-breaker.

“We didn’t need this to become a political football,” said Mr. Watt, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The issue created tension among various minority factions, Mr. Watt said.

“In most jurisdictions, Hispanics reach the threshold [of 10 percent of the electorate to get foreign-language ballots] but Asians do not, and I think that’s why smaller minority groups had a little bit bigger dog in that fight than the Hispanic or black caucuses did,” he said.

In the hearing yesterday, Karen Narasaki, president of the Asian American Justice Center, cited the 2003 gubernatorial election in Louisiana as an example of the persistence of racial issues in election politics. In that election, Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco defeated Republican Bobby Jindal, who is of Indian ancestry. Mr. Jindal was elected to the House a year later.

Miss Narasaki said lawsuits to enforce Section 203 multilingual-ballot mandates have been responsible for a 20 percent rise in Filipino voting in San Diego and a 40 percent increase in Vietnamese registration. She said such enforcement in Harris County, Texas, doubled the number of Vietnamese eligible voters there.

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