WASHINGTON -- Rep. Dean Heller dusted off a hot-button issue Tuesday, introducing a bill that would require voter ballots to be in English only.
Heller's bill would repeal Voting Rights Act provisions that require cities and counties to provide bilingual ballots when 5 percent of voting-age citizens are deemed by the U.S. census to be limited in English.
Heller, a Reno Republican who is seeking re-election, was secretary of state before entering Congress in 2007. He said the most frequent complaint he heard in Carson City involved Spanish-language ballots in Clark and Washoe counties.
"There was not anything I could do about it because it was a federal issue," Heller said. "Now that I am in a federal position, I can."
Heller said bilingual ballots are an unfunded mandate in the 36 states that are required to supply them. He said the ballots are contrary to the goal of getting immigrants to assimilate.
"If you are going to be successful in this country you have to learn the language," Heller said. "Too many times the federal government encourages people not to learn the language."
The voting rights requirement also takes effect when more than 10,000 potential voters in a county or city are English-limited.
Voting rights rules also cover language ballots for American Indians and native Alaskans. Heller said he created exceptions for those groups because "they were here first."
Elko, Nye and White Pine counties have printed ballots in Shoshone. Ballots in the Paiute language have been provided in Lyon County, and another native language is represented in Humboldt County, said Rob Toonkel, communications director for U.S. English, a group that promotes English as the official language.
Congress debates the issue periodically, usually as part of its reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. The bilingual ballot requirement was added to the law in 1975.
Most recently, the House in 2006 defeated an English-only ballot amendment. At that time, Rep. Jon Porter and then-Rep. Jim Gibbons, both Republicans, voted for an English-only ballot while Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., voted against it.
Toonkel said ballot language bills are a tough sell because opponents frame them as anti-voter rights.
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, said the Heller bill was mean-spirited and was introduced against a backdrop of anti-immigrant fervor.
"Guaranteeing access to a ballot is a constitutional right," Henderson said. "I am pretty confident that Representative Heller's bill will gain virtually no traction."
The bill "would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens who are not fully fluent in English," said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Wilkes said the bill is based on a faulty premise that immigrants do not want to learn English. If anything, he said, newcomers are becoming fluent in English a generation faster than they were before because of mass media exposure.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.