WASHINGTON – The House agreed Wednesday to affirm the right of voters in areas with large populations of non-English-speaking citizens to cast ballots in their native language.
The 254-167 roll call in support of bilingual balloting came just a week after GOP divisions over the issue contributed to the postponement of a House vote to renew the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"If you have the good fortune to be able to vote in the United States, then it is not too much to ask that this be accomplished in English," said Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla. "I don't think the United States government should be forced to pay for (bilingual) assistance."
The bilingual balloting vote came on an amendment by Stearns as the House debated a $59.8 billion measure funding the annual budgets of the departments of Justice, Commerce and State.
About 500 political subdivisions in 31 states must offer bilingual assistance. Of those states, five — Alaska, Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas — must provide the assistance statewide.
The issue has become embroiled with a passionate election-year debate to overhaul immigration laws. Conservative Republicans have pushed to make English the official national language.
Supporters of non-English ballots reminded colleagues that only U.S. citizens are able to vote and that even those whose native language is English have difficulty with complex ballot initiatives, much less those who learned the language after coming to this country.
An overwhelming majority of Democrats joined with slightly fewer than one-third of House Republicans to reject Stearns' amendment.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said taking away the right to bilingual ballots would "allow states and localities to discriminate against taxpaying American citizens because of their language ability and impede their right to vote. That is wrong."
The Justice Department on Wednesday settled a lawsuit with Brazos County, Texas, for denying Spanish-speaking citizens voting materials and ballots in Spanish and preventing them from getting help in voting.
"The Voting Rights Act has nothing to do with immigration," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif. "One hundred percent (of those benefiting from non-English ballots) are U.S. citizens."