BILINGUAL BALLOTS WORTH EXPLORING

Wilkes-Barre, Times Leader

Thursday, May 28, 2009    Page: 7A

SI, SEÑOR PIAZZA.

Yes, Mr. Piazza, please study the practicality of providing Luzerne County voters with bilingual ballots.

If adding a Spanish version of the ballot isn’t unreasonably costly, the county’s director of elections, Leonard Piazza, should propose the change for all county polling places during elections in 2010 and beyond.

The move, while certain to anger some people, is the right thing to do. Voting defines a democracy. Our right to freely choose our elected leaders is a basic principle, one of the things that historically binds us as a nation, as opposed to, say, a shared dialect.

Already, Spanish-speaking citizens in Luzerne County exercise their voting rights, often with the help of translators who accompany them to the touch-screen voting machines. But many people, in and out of the Latino community, expressed concerns about this buddy method prior to last week’s Pennsylvania primary elections.

Certain non-Latino candidates told Piazza they favor a bilingual ballot, he said, because it eliminates the likelihood that a translator who is supposed to simply aid a voter might instead influence his or her picks.

Even so, the dual-language proposal is likely to trouble some people, including those who harbor nativist notions.

English-only proponents might be first to protest a transition to bilingual ballots. After all, they might ask, don’t foreigners need to pass an English exam as part of their naturalization requirements?

In many cases, yes, they do. But will mastery of names such as “White House” and “George Washington” fully prepare people with minimal English skills to read ballot initiatives on topics such as home rule-style government or Pennsylvania’s 2008 sewer bond question: “Do you favor the incurring of indebtedness by the Commonwealth …”?

Besides, even if Luzerne County opts not to supply bilingual ballots next year, it probably will be compelled to do so soon after.

The 1975 Voting Rights Act – renewed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush in July 2006 – requires precincts with certain percentages of non-English speakers to provide language help. Piazza predicts the pending U.S. Census is likely to trigger the law into effect for parts of Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton.

If so, the Election Bureau will buy software to make bilingual ballots available not just in those places, but rather in the entire county. In other words, it’ll be the whole enchilada.