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Shorten Reauthorization of Voting Rights Act

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. GARRETT of New Jersey. I appreciate the gentleman from Iowa for yielding me the time. And I also appreciate the gentleman from Iowa for your work on this issue. I came to the floor to address the issue that you were just touching upon, and that was the issue of bilingual or multi-lingual ballots.

But before I get there, let me just touch on something you mentioned because you raised an important point, and that is that the current extension of the Voting Rights Act, as you referenced going forward for 25 years, looks all the way back to the initial status and the initial data from the early 60s, mid-60s.

You could step back for a moment and say what was the fundamental problem that they were trying to address, legitimately so, at that time? And I think you might say you would put it into two categories, one personal and the other institutional. Personal, just meaning the individuals who may have been involved in the particular voting districts at the time that may have been creating illegitimate voting barriers for people of different nationalities or different race or what have you. And the other would be institutional, and that is to say that at that point in time, there were in actuality in America, unfortunately, particular institutional barriers as well in place. So you could look and say there was two elements that the Voting Rights Act had to address. But that, as you also pointed out accurately so, was 40 some odd years ago. Those institutional barriers fortunately have all been removed. The personal ones, though, interesting, I would think just by the advent of time also have to have been removed as well because the people who were elected to office in the mid-60s, for one reason or another, are no longer with us today, at least not in elected office. So the two aspects that the Voting Rights Act were specifically going to address from the data back then and the specifications of who was in place and what the institutions are no longer with us, not to say that we may not have other personal situations that may crop up today in the future. And that is why I think you come to the floor, and other Members do, such as myself, says that we should strive in this House, and in the House just down the halls from here as well to make sure that all barriers, personal or institutional, today and in the future, will always be removed, and that you will have the fullest level of political participation that you can have. So I appreciate you bringing out that point of just exactly what we are dealing with when we are dealing with the Voting Rights Act.

But I came to the floor to address the issue of the multi-lingual ballots. And I want to begin by giving credit where credit is due, because those who are listening here tonight, realizing that the bill is coming to the floor tomorrow, may think, based upon some of your comments and other things, that things are moving forward just in a legitimate and a good manner, and that we are going to succeed in this area of eliminating multi-lingual ballots.

Well, the credit, as my dad always said, ``give credit where credit is due.'' And the credit, if we are successful in the amendment coming to the floor tomorrow, are due to the gentleman to my right, the gentleman from Iowa, because I will say this, that it was in an RSC meeting, Republican Study Committee meeting, which meets on Wednesday afternoons here, where you came to address the group, brought this to my attention, and I think to the attention of a lot of people in the RSC for the first time.

I was struck by it, that this is an issue that needed to be addressed. And I was a little bit concerned that there was not enough agitation, aggravation or concern among my colleagues that this was going to be addressed. But you were a driving force and reassured me, you said, ``Scott, I think we are going to be able to build up the momentum on this. I think we are going to be able to get the word out on this, and I think once people realize just exactly what is in the Voting Rights Act, what the problems are and what the changes are needed, we are going to be successful.'' I was not as positive as you were at that moment, but you were dogged on that like you are dogged on so many other things, and I think that with the support of our colleagues here tomorrow, and if we hear from the voters who listen to this each evening, if they make sure that their Members hear from their concerns that we will be successful on this. So I come initially just to applaud you and salute you for your dogged determination.

The problem with the Voters Rights Act and the multi-lingual ballots, I think, can be said also to fall under a couple of different categories. First is the length of time that you would look for if we do not eliminate it, that it would continue for. It will continue for 25 years. And so just as there was a problem of looking back to the 60s and looking at that past data that is incorrect now as we here try to legislate today, I would hazard a guess that the circumstances in this country will be significantly different than they are today 25 years hence.

Now, I have been here now for 3 years, just as the gentleman from Iowa has been as well, and I can think of many other very important significant legislations that we have reauthorized. But for the life of me, and I stand to be corrected, I cannot think of any other bill, any other important issue, whether you are dealing with the air, the water, the environment, our schools, our education or our health, our defense or otherwise, I cannot think of any other areas, and again I stand to be corrected, where we have reauthorized something for two and one-half decades. So I think that is the first area that we need to be addressing, and you are rightfully so for bringing it up.

Just as a side note on this, I did put in an amendment that would limit this down to 6 years, but that was the proverbial compromise amendment if we were not successful in getting your amendment to the floor tomorrow which would eliminate the multi-lingual ballots entirely. But as I understand, the Rules Committee has met, 4 hours ago, around 3:00, and they saw the wisdom of going your road of at least allowing the vote on the floor. So we will go for that vote and not for the limitation of 6 years.

The second part, the difficulty or the problem with the current status of the VRA, one being the length of time, the second one being what is in the current law right now. We are really not, by allowing multi-lingual ballots to continue, we are not really enforcing current law. Current law, and I should have it right here, says that if you come into this country, legally and become a legal naturalized U.S. citizen and therefore have the right to vote, current law states that you must, according to the law, under section 312 I think you referenced, if not on the floor tonight, in previous times, an applicant must demonstrate, ``an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write and speak in ordinary usage the English language.''

So when you think about it, who are the people who are allowed to vote in this country? Well, they fall into two categories, one, you were born here and so you are a legal citizen, which means you went through the entire education process, age 1 through 18 in this country. So hopefully you have gone through our fine public schools or private or otherwise schools and so you should be able to read the English language.

Second is the naturalized citizens. Naturalized are those who come through and come through the process, and those individuals are those people I have just cited section 312, who have certified, attested to, they have taken a test, a citizenship test, if you will, to become a citizen of this country. That test is administered in English. And at the end they basically certify that they can, that they possess the ability to read, write and speak the English language. So if they are able to do that, if they are able to take a test in the English language, then you would think they should also be able to complete a simple U.S. ballot in any municipality or county or state. So that is the second point, that we are basically ignoring current law by continuing on with multi-lingual ballots.

Thirdly, the problem is that this is, once again, another unfunded Federal mandate on the county governments, municipal governments and the like. I was on the phone about I guess 3 weeks ago, some time after you were speaking at the RSC, and I was speaking with election commissioners throughout the State, my State of New Jersey, and they were telling me about the costs that they have to be engaged in to pay for it. It comes out of the taxpayers' pockets to print up and publish and mail out these multi-lingual ballots. That comes out of local taxpayers. Doesn't come out of this House. Doesn't get appropriated from Washington. And so that is just another example of where we are sending down the rules. We are putting out the mandates by passing the VRA with this language in it, but someone else foots the bill. So there is another problem with the VRA, that it is an unfunded mandate.

Another, fourth aspect is the basically arbitrary and capricious nature in the way that the multi-lingual ballots are implemented under the VRA and have been in the past and will be unless the King amendment is passed tomorrow.

And I think you have touched upon this in the past, but let us make the point clear to those who don't follow it, that the way you look to determine whether or not a multilingual ballot is necessary and required under the VRA is to say whether or not 5 percent of the population in that respective voting district cannot speak the English language.

One of the primary functions or processes in order to determine that is to look at the surnames of those individuals, and I think you have already given examples, and other people that have come to this floor have given examples, that just because you have an Asian surname, it does not necessarily mean that that is your language and you cannot speak English. Just because you have an Hispanic surname does not mean that you cannot read or write the English language. And in some sense, therefore, it is insulting to those individuals.

So the fourth aspect is the arbitrary and capricious nature of the way that the multilingual ballot law is required and enforced; and because it is arbitrary and capricious, it creates two things: It creates a disincentive for those people who are new to this country to assimilate into this Nation and learn the predominant language, which is English, so it is a disincentive to them.

And, secondly, I guess the word to be almost an insulting nature to them, that just because you are new to this country or may have been here for several years as naturalized citizens that you don't possess the ability to learn to read and write the English language.

And I will close on this. When I had the opportunity to speak with some election commissioners, they have told me that they have received letters from voters in their district complaining that they got a multilingual ballot, saying, in essence, What are you saying about me? Is the government saying that I am not smart enough to read and speak the English language? So the people, basically, were insulted, if you will, by the fact that just because they have an Hispanic surname or another surname of sorts that the government has taken the position that they cannot read and write the English language.

So there are one, two, three, four problems: that it is an overly extended time for reauthorization; that we are not complying with or basically ignore the current law, which is a law that requires people, when they come into this country, to attest to the fact that they can speak and read and understand the English language; thirdly, that this is yet again another unfunded mandate by the Federal Government; and, fourthly, that it is basically an arbitrary and capricious standard that we are applying to the States.

Applying the 5 percent rule in basically an insulting and discriminatory matter, discriminatory in the sense that if there is another ethnic group, another individual group there that has maybe 4 percent, 4.5 percent, they do not rise to that level, but someone at 5 percent does rise to that level.

So there are four basic problems that lead the gentleman from Iowa and me to believe that there is not a fundamental reason for us to continue the VRA multilingual ballot.

And I would hope that we will get sufficient votes tomorrow, Mr. King, to pass your amendment and move forward to correcting this portion of the VRA.


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