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Editorial: Keep elections in English
Bilingual ballots are a costly, complex fix to an issue that likely affects few voters
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This editorial, you’ll note, is written in English. As are the other items on this page and throughout this newspaper. Though Gainesville and Hall County have a large Spanish-speaking populace, it’s not cost-effective for us to print a bilingual product for those readers.

Many businesses have been able to make that adjustment by offering services in Spanish, a choice they are free to make. “Press 1 for English or 2 para español” is a small enhancement that doesn’t cost much, so power to them.

But when it comes to the shared public language of government, it’s much more difficult and costly to accommodate speakers of all languages. Whether on public records, road signs or other written verbiage, in most cases it’s necessary to pick a language and stick with it. And that language, since the United States was founded, is English. It’s not the easiest to learn, perhaps, but it’s part of who we are.

Some, however, believe society should bend to the needs of recent immigrants and provide governmental services in their native tongues. The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials recently sought to have election offices in Hall and Gwinnett counties provide bilingual ballots for their growing Hispanic populations.

The argument is that language barriers might discourage qualified voters from casting a ballot. GALEO claims hundreds of Puerto Rican natives who are American citizens speak Spanish as their chief language and should have this benefit.

Though GALEO claims the provision falls under the Voting Rights Act, the state has argued otherwise, claiming its census population thresholds do not require it to furnish bilingual ballots. Hall’s election board members are divided as they weigh the benefits vs. the costs.

The push for such ballots, though well-intentioned, isn’t a feasible option to address what likely is a problem for very few people. It’s hard to imagine there is a large number of qualified, registered voters who do not speak English well enough to cast a ballot. Those who are naturalized citizens had to learn English during that process, helping them assimilate into their adopted land. And since most elections involve selecting candidates from a list of names, there isn’t always a lot of translation needed.

Though Puerto Rican natives may be more comfortable using Spanish, those who have moved to the mainland surely know their use of English will help them in business, education and other walks of life. Over time, the children of immigrants in our school systems will learn English as their chief language, and will pass that on to the next generations.

And if ballots were printed in Spanish, what about voters from areas where different languages are spoken? Our area also includes immigrants from Asia, Europe and Africa who might also want ballots offered in their native tongues or regional dialects. Some places do so; Hall County Democratic Party Chair Sheila Nicholas says she saw multiple languages on ballots while living in Chicago. But Chicago is a huge city, likely with a large enough population of those ethnic groups to justify the cost. Even then, everyone is best-served to learn English if they want to succeed in our country.

There are less complicated and inexpensive ways to provide language services for the small number of voters who may need assistance at the polls. One already in place allows interpreters to accompany voters to the polls for anyone who can’t read English. Voting instruction sheets or translations of complex ballot questions could be provided in simple handouts for those who need them; they could be taken up after the ballot is cast and reused to save costs. Private voter groups wishing to provide such information could be encouraged to take that burden off taxpayers.

One goal of many is to establish English as the nation’s official language, with U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville co-sponsoring such a bill. But successful or not, codifying it into law is a mere gesture. English already is our nation’s dominant language and always has been, official or otherwise. Those who wish to become fully part of what America stands for should and will learn it over time.

We don’t need this issue to be divisive or xenophobic, nor make anyone feel isolated or discriminated against as they learn our language. We should welcome all new Americans who want to take part in our democratic process, and should encourage them through all means within reason.

As new immigrants become part of this nation, they will learn, if they haven’t already, how entwined English is in our culture. Its words mold the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Its prose created the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, along with every other profound item of spoken or written wisdom in our history.

Since the United States was founded, the language of Shakespeare has provided the lyrics for the music of freedom. We urge all who share that dream to learn it, at their own pace, and join in celebrating its place in American heritage.

To send a letter to the editor, use this form or send to The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson.