When Democracy Meets Diversity


Sometimes I think the biggest barrier to democracy is the franchise itself, voting.

I mean everything from the physical act of casting a ballot (whether it be using a black marker, an old fashioned voting machine, or the infamous pinpricking of chads), all the way to the reading of the directions and filling out the right space on the right form, to inserting your ballot into the right place at the right time, and then crossing your fingers and hoping it all gets counted.

Voting isn’t easy. If it were, Al Gore would have been president.

The truth is anything other than a hand-raise or a voice vote is really way too complicated in the land of the free.

And mind you, all this is after one has been through the gauntlet of candidates and issues. These days, that often means deceitfully worded ballot measures and propositions intended to render a “no” vote into a “yes” (like the California Civil Rights Initiative that really banned affirmative action). It’s way too confusing for even English speakers like myself. (Actually, I’m trilingual. I speak English, bad English and English badly.)

So thank goodness the U.S. Census just made it easier for non-English speaking voters in America.

They’ll still have to overcome the physical hassles of voting. But at least now more of them will be able to read the darned ballot and be full-participating Americans in the process.

As a barometer of the diversity in this great democracy, the Census Bureau, as mandated by the Voting Rights Act, has just updated the requirement for bilingual ballots in 248 jurisdictions in 25 states.

The list is being published today in the Federal Register.

It means Bangladeshi voters, like the cab drivers I befriended recently in Michigan’s Hamtramck city, will be able to understand or misunderstand today’s modern ballot on an equal basis with their Polish American brothers.

It means New Jersey’s Bergen County for the first time will have to supply Korean ballots.

And in Nevada’s Clark County, where Philippine Congressman and boxing champion Manny Pacquiao campaigned for Harry Reid last year, Filipino ballots will now be required.

As the population goes, so goes the ballot. At least, the language in which it gets printed.

According to the Census, the 248 jurisdictions cover 65,596,005 voting age eligible citizens, about 30.7 percent of the total U.S. citizen voting age population.

In 2006 (thanks to the advocacy of groups like AALDEF), the Census Bureau was asked not to wait for the ten-year count, but to update the growth of emerging communities with data from the 2005-2009 American Community Survey estimates.

The new update found a total of 19,209,431 voting age citizens from language minority groups in the covered areas, an increase of 42.7 percent since 2002.

That’s a lot of people who would have been left in the dark.

Of these voters, the breakdown by group:

Hispanics: 14,794,716

Asians: 4,030,110

American Indians/Alaskan Natives: 384,605

To my surprise, the bilingual ballot is even coming to places where I thought they were already.

For example, in California, the most Asian American state in the nation, Chinese ballots will now be required in Sacramento, the state’s capital, where Chinese have been since the Gold Rush. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Alameda County will now provide Filipino ballots.

In Harris County, Texas (the Houston area), where the ballots have had Vietnamese translations, Chinese will now be required.

We all should celebrate this explosion of democracy and diversity while we can.

Just around the corner there’s a budding nativist wondering aloud, “Shouldn’t Americans speak and read English well enough to vote?” I’ve already seen one California TV station pick the fight, posing it as an insta-poll question.

After all, diversity wouldn’t be diversity without a corresponding xenophobic backlash.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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