Why Can’t Some People Read Ballots?

In today’s About New York column by Jim Dwyer of the New York Times, he tells the story of Fun Mae Eng, a resident of New York City who voted in her first presidential election in 1992. She carried a cheat sheet into the booth with her so she could recognize the characters in the English alphabet that made up Bill Clinton’s name, the candidate for whom she wished to vote. At the time, Ms. Eng could not read or speak English. The article went on to note the disenfranchisement of Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans in our nation’s past, and to note how far they have come, as evidenced by the current Democratic ticket in this city’s coming elections. The article also praised the efforts of community groups to press the city’s Board of Elections to create bilingual ballots in Chinese for areas of the city with large amounts of Chinese-speaking residents — a noble cause. Except for one thing. Why can’t people, including immigrants eligible to vote, read ballots?

In order for a person to be eligible to vote in the United States, the first criteria they must meet is being a citizen, whether by birth or naturalization.

If a person is a citizen by birth, by the time they reach voting age it is unlikely they will not be able to speak or read English. Only in unusual circumstances would a natural born citizen not know the dominant language of this country, such as having been moved to and raised in a foreign state from a young age. Another possibility is that a person was raised in such an insular community in this country that they were able to grow up never having needed to learn English to survive. But, if that is the case, if that person went through their life that far removed from American society, it becomes unlikely they would be interested in voting.

As for naturalized citizens, logically there is little reason to think that they would not be able to read a ballot, and the reason is simple. In order to become a naturalized United States citizen, an applicant must pass a citizenship test that is written in English. If a person can read and pass this test, they have enough knowledge of English to read a ballot.

There is the conundrum that confronts every effort to make ballots in this country bi or multilingual. If a person is a citizen, it is overwhelmingly likely that they can read a ballot. Of course, there is no literacy test for voting. Those that cannot read can get assistance from election workers when they enter the booth. But for those voters who are not illiterate, but lack a functional understanding of the English language, I have to ask, how are they eligible to vote, or more precisely, are they really citizens?

In considering the case of Ms. Eng, there are irregularities in her story as presented by Dwyer that stand out. (This column isn’t meant to question Ms. Eng’s eligibility to vote, call her past votes into question, or question her citizenship. It is meant to point out there is something odd going on in the current voting system.) When Ms. Eng cast her vote for Governor Clinton, she was 59 years old. Assuming she met the citizenship requirement for voting, that means one of two things. One: she was born in the United States yet could not read or write English, although she was well into middle age. Why? Two: she was a naturalized citizen who could not read or write English. If she was able to read and pass the test, why could she not read the ballot?

These questions, and their possible answers, harbor disturbing implications. If Ms. Eng was born in the United States, yet could not read or write English, despite being 59 years of age, then there was a profound failure of integration into American society. If that type of failure is widespread among foreign cultures in the United States, and with immigrants and their families, it must be addressed, or it will become a detriment to the health of the nation. If she left the country for an extended period and her English skills atrophied, then there is no issue.

If Ms. Eng was naturalized, then the process of naturalization comes into question. A person should walk away from that test with at least minimal reading skills in English. If a person can pass without those skills, then it follows they did not meet the requirements for citizenship. Yet another possibility here is that she learned enough English to pass the test, but time had passed and, like in the previous paragraph, her skills atrophied.

Finally, there is the possibility that some persons who vote and cannot read the ballot, are not United States citizens, either by birth or naturalization. If that is the case, where is the breakdown in the system that allows these people to cast votes, when they are denied by U.S. law from doing so?

Cases where a voter cannot read a ballot are hardly unique in the United States, which is why there are proposals for multilingual ballots. But, there shouldn’t have to be. Reality being what it is, however, it cannot be expected that some voters would not fall through the cracks as far as their English skills are concerned. Since the issue is a genuine one within immigrant communities, the question of why some voters cannot read a ballot, through failure of their own upkeep of their English skills, or whether or not they are even eligible to vote, through a failing of government bureaucracy, or even fraud, must be answered before considering adding languages to ballots, for the simple reason that there is almost no reason a voter should not be able to read a ballot written in English in this country. An honest debate should be able to address these issues without descending into the aggrieved murk of the immigration debate. But in all likelihood, that won’t happen.