Thursday, June 22, 2006

Renewing the Literacy Test

Normally I'd be happy when legislation backed by the president was blocked in Congress. Normally I'd be extra pleased to find out that the delay in voting was due to a disagreement within the GOP representitives, a sign that the DeLay days of ironclad party discipline are over. But normally Bush isn't pushing legislation in agreement with almost unanimous Democratic support.

Working at the Library of Congress, I've helped run a number of events discussing the renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Last summer I was surprised to hear that the act was due to expire in 2007. Not surprisingly, I forgot about the content of the event and was more excited at getting Kerry and Obama's pictures. It was brought to my attention again last week in a speech by Congressman Charles Gonzoles (D-TX) reminding everyone that the act had not yet been renewed. The act was hailed as a landmark for the civil rights movement. So why would a number of Republicans want to block it from passing?
House leaders abruptly canceled a vote to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act yesterday after rank-and-file Republicans revolted over provisions that require bilingual ballots in many places and continued federal oversight of voting practices in Southern states. (Washington Post)
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) requested an amendment getting rid of the requirement to have all voting information in other languages -- and was denied.
That was "a gigantic mistake," said Rep. Charles Whitlow Norwood Jr. (R-Ga.), a leading critic of the act's renewal. "What people are really upset about is bilingual ballots," he said. "The American people want this to be an English-speaking nation."
Let's ignore the content of that comment for a moment and reflect on the nature of the literacy tests during Jim Crow. After the 15th amendment passed allowing all men over 21 the right to vote regardless of race, the new strategy to deny poor blacks the right to vote was to ask them to pass a literacy test. The test was administered unfairly, often targeting blacks with harder questions or combining with the Grandfather clause to keep whites from being affected. Even had it been administered fairly, however, the act focused on making it harder for one demographic to vote. If we strip the provision from the Voting Rights Act requiring multi-lingual ballots and information forms, how would it be any different from targeting recent immigrants?

There is, of course, a literacy test on the citizenship test. But it focuses more on history and how our government works than on testing whether immigrants are fluent in English. Check out a sample test and think about how much English you would have to know to get by it. I do think that the United States should push everyone to be able to speak and read English, but to use voting rights as a method to do so is wrong.

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