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Public Statements

"Voting Is A Fundamental Right"

Location: Washington, DC

"Voting is a Fundamental Right"

Transcript of Senator Kennedy's Remarks Before the Senate Judiciary Committee

"Mr. Chairman, thank you for convening these hearings and for your continued commitment to keeping us on track to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act during this Congress.

We all understand that English is the common and unifying language of the United States. Becoming proficient in English is important to becoming part of American society and pursuing the American dream. There's no disagreement here.

We also all understand that voting is a fundamental right. It's the right from which all other rights derive. Again, there is no disagreement among us on this point.

But we must also understand that not all citizens of the United States know English well enough to participate in an English-only election. Without bilingual ballots and assistance at the polls, there are millions of our fellow citizens who would be unable to vote effectively.

These include many native-born American citizens, who because of poverty and unequal educational opportunities have high rates of illiteracy and limited English proficiency.

They also include many Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens by birth and who have given so much to this country.

65,000 Puerto Ricans served in World War II, 48,000 in Vietnam. As of November 2003, 3,500 Puerto Ricans were serving in Iraq or Afghanistan and as of last February, 48 of them had died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since World War II, Puerto Rico has suffered more military casualties per capita than any other U.S. jurisdiction.

Puerto Ricans, educated in classrooms where the instruction was in Spanish, should not be denied a ballot they can understand and voting instructions they can understand. Yet some states tried to do that. In the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Congress prohibited states from conditioning the right of Puerto Ricans to vote on their ability to read and write in English, and the Supreme Court in Katzenbach v. Morgan upheld the constitutionality of that prohibition.

The same principle applies to Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. On many Indian Reservations and in Alaskan villages, translators are necessary to translate ballots into unwritten languages for Native Americans and Alaskans who cannot read their ballots and could not vote effectively without that assistance.

We owe it to these Americans to provide them the help they need to cast their votes.

The same principle should apply to naturalized U.S. citizens. They were attracted to our country by opportunity and the promise of democracy, and they are no less worthy to exercise their right to vote.

It's wrong to equate knowing enough English to become a naturalized citizen with knowing enough English to participate responsibly in an election. According to current federal law on naturalization, persons must be able to "read or write simple words and phrases" in English to become naturalized citizens. Naturalization law also exempts some Americans over 50 from having to satisfy an English language requirement to become a citizen.

Even under the more demanding English-language requirement of the recent Senate immigration bill, applicants for naturalization would need to "demonstrate a sufficient understanding of the English language for usage in everyday life."

But many elections require more than an understanding of everyday usage to participate effectively. Often, ballots contain complex referenda and initiatives. Here's one example. It's an initiative that appeared on the ballot in Denver County, Colorado in 2004. The county is required to provide voting materials in Spanish under Section 203.

Even those of us who think we can speak English would probably ask for the Cliffs Notes version of this ballot.

Our limited-English-proficient fellow citizens know the importance of learning English. Access to the franchise in their native language is not a disincentive to learn English. Their lives and struggles are a daily reminder of how important learning English is to succeeding in this country. It should upset all of us here today that we're not meeting our obligation to help them learn English. They want to learn English.

In Boston, the waiting list to learn English is nearly 17,000 students long and the waiting period is as long as 3 years. 3 years! In New York City, it's estimated that 1 million residents need English-language instruction, yet there are only 41,000 slots. The problem is national—In Albuquerque, Catholic Charities reports 1,000 people on their waiting lists, and a waiting time of 12 months for services. In Phoenix, the waiting list at the Rio Salado Community College is over 1,000, and the waiting time is up to 18 months.

Let's not punish American citizens who want to learn English by conditioning the fundamental right to vote on an ability to read and write in English. If we're sincere about including naturalized citizens in the American way of life and promoting American values and traditions, there is no better way than through the ballot box, and we need to continue Section 203 to make it possible."

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