WASHINGTON — A group of House Republicans wants to do away with bilingual ballots and translation assistance at the polls, a reflection of how tensions over immigration are pervading other issues.
As Congress readies to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the lawmakers are lobbying their colleagues to let the act's language assistance provisions expire.
The 56 lawmakers support the act, but say the language assistance to voters -- provided throughout much of California -- undermines national unity, increases the risk of election fraud, and puts an undue burden on state and local governments.
"We believe these ballot provisions encourage the linguistic division of our nation and contradict the 'melting pot' ideal that has made us the most successful multiethnic nation on Earth," the members said in a letter earlier this year.
The group's effort is not likely to succeed, in part because of other Republicans' concerns that it could further offend Latino voters upset by the enforcement-only immigration legislation the House passed in December.
Policy analysts said the focus on bilingual ballots illustrated a hardening of positions within the GOP as the debate on illegal immigration evolved.
"It's reflective of the broader divide in the Republican Party on the immigration issue and related cultural questions," said Marshall Wittmann, a former GOP Senate aide who is a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council.
"This division is now being reflected in collateral issues, like the Voting Rights Act," Wittmann added.
Under President Bush, the GOP has emphasized courting Latino voters.
But many Republican lawmakers also have spotlighted illegal immigration as a key concern, arguing that the continuing flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. is culturally transforming the nation and must be stemmed. Such attitudes led to the passage of the House bill that would significantly upgrade border security, make illegal presence in the U.S. a felony, and make aiding illegal immigrants a felony.
Bush is urging Congress to pass a bill that, along with beefed-up border security, includes a guest worker program and some legalization measures for illegal immigrants. He also is encouraging immigrants to learn English -- a response to a controversial Spanish-language version of the national anthem.
The Senate and House are to conduct committee hearings next week on reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), prime sponsor of letting the language assistance provision expire, plans to submit his proposal as an amendment in the House Judiciary Committee next week.
The Voting Rights Act was designed to prevent discrimination from interfering with citizens' ability to vote. When the act was extended in 1975, Congress added the section that requires some jurisdictions to provide bilingual ballots and translators.
Currently, 466 jurisdictions in 31 states provide these services on election day. Twenty-five California counties qualify, including Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Santa Clara.
King dismissed suggestions that his proposal could hurt the GOP among the nation's growing numbers of Latino voters.
"We're talking about public policy, and I would like to think the Hispanics in this country respect American values in the same way," said King, who has long backed efforts to make English the United States' official language.
Six GOP California House members signed the letter detailing King's proposal: Gary G. Miller of Diamond Bar, Ed Royce of Fullerton, Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach, Ken Calvert of Corona, John T. Doolittle of Roseville and John Campbell of Irvine.
The proposal's backers say that U.S.-born or naturalized citizens should know enough English to vote, particularly because a command of the language is a requirement for citizenship.
"In all the talk now about immigration, there seems to be a very broad consensus that people who want to become citizens should read, write and speak English," Campbell said.
King said another provision of the Voting Rights Act allows voters who need help, including translation, to bring someone with them.
But Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the main author of the enforcement-only House immigration bill, staunchly defended the language assistance provision in the Voting Rights Act.
"If [immigrants] want to achieve the American dream, they better learn how to read and function in English," Sensenbrenner said. "But this deals with the right to vote, and these people are United States citizens; they are not illegal immigrants. It seems to me these people should not be confused because they don't have the proper instruction about how to vote on ballots for the candidates of their choice."
Caroline Fredrickson, an official with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said the language assistance provision had "worked phenomenally well in allowing people with limited English proficiency to participate in our democratic process. There has been a remarkable growth in voting participation in areas that have been covered."
King and his group say bilingual ballots cause election errors. They cited a 2000 case in Flushing, N.Y., where ballots printed in Chinese misidentified the political affiliations of some candidates. They also allege that bilingual ballots can make it easier for illegal immigrants to fraudulently vote.