Russia and Iran regularly hold elections, but they are not democratic in the sense that Americans understand the word. Their regimes use the law to keep formidable opponents off the ballot, leaving voters little say in who governs them.
Which brings us to the community of San Luis, Ariz., where would-be City Council candidate Alejandrina Cabrera will not be allowed to run in the town’s March 13 primary because, according to the Arizona Supreme Court, she doesn’t speak English well enough to serve.
San Luis is perched on the Mexican-American border; the town’s Main Street, in fact, runs straight into Mexico, with a customs inspection station along the way. According to U.S. census data, 98.7 percent of San Luis residents are of Hispanic origin and 87 percent speak a language other than English in their homes. “It’s strange to speak English here,” Archibaldo Gurrola, who is a former San Luis councilman and a political ally of Cabrera’s, as well as a UPS delivery person in the town, told The New York Times. “Spanish is what you hear everywhere, maybe with some English thrown in,” he said. (1)
Cabrera would not have been alone among city officeholders in speaking English less than perfectly. The town’s mayor, Juan Carlos Escamilla, also admits to struggling with the language sometimes. “I feel I don’t dominate 100 percent, but I can still get by,” he said on local television. (1) Yet Escamilla is the one who initiated the legal challenge opposing Cabrera’s candidacy based on her language skills.
Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson ruled in favor of Escamilla last month, and the decision was upheld by the state Supreme Court on Feb. 7. Nelson’s ruling was apparently largely based on a report by a Brigham Young University linguist, William Eggington, who assessed Cabrera’s English skills. In his report, Eggington wrote, “I admire Ms. Cabrera for her courage and ambition, and wish her well. However, in my studied opinion…she does not yet have sufficient English language proficiency to function adequately as an elected City Council member.” (1) Cabrera has said she had difficulty understanding Eggington during the assessment because of his Australian accent. It is not entirely clear how Eggington would have determined the level of English required to “function adequately” as a Council member in a place like San Luis.
The United States has no official national language, despite the repeated efforts of certain lawmakers to change that. The Associated Press reported several weeks ago that 23 states have laws making English their official language, though only Arizona is believed to require English proficiency as a prerequisite for holding public office. Unfortunately, no one has yet managed to determine exactly how much English proficiency is actually required.
No place in America, apparently, is too small or out of the way to get involved in the defense of the mother tongue. The board of county commissioners in Frederick County, Md., passed an ordinance just this week making English the county’s official language. If you don’t know where Frederick County is, exactly, don’t worry; it’s doubtful you will ever need to find it. But local officials there apparently fear being overwhelmed by illegal immigrants should they not insist that most communications with the government be handled in English.
The worst thing about Arizona’s statute is not the requirement that officeholders be fluent in English. By far the most pernicious element, one which the state courts failed entirely to address, is the vagueness of the standard and the selectivity with which it is enforced. Judges routinely refuse to enforce statutes that are too imprecise to inform the public of exactly what they require. Judges also ought to be extremely wary of allowing themselves to be manipulated for political purposes, which is corrosive not only to government integrity but also to respect for the courts. The Arizona judiciary compromised itself and the public in its handling of the Cabrera case. The only appeal lies to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it is not terribly likely that Cabrera will have the resources to bring such an appeal (which would be moot, in any case, with the end of the election) or that the nation’s highest court would agree to hear it if she did.
The Arizona language requirement also brings to mind the literacy tests that were once widely used to bar African Americans from voting. Such requirements, interestingly, have never been declared unconstitutional, but literacy tests as a prerequisite for voting were effectively eliminated by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The courts should have struck down Arizona’s vague and manipulative requirement and allowed voters to decide for themselves whether a candidate’s language skills are suitable for the job at issue. As Cabrera noted, quite eloquently, following the initial ruling, “When he [Nelson] took my right to be on the ballot, he took away the right of the people who want to vote for me.” (2)
That’s the truth, in plain English.
1) The New York Times, “Arizona Candidate Challenged Over English Skills”
2) CNN, “Arizona woman off ballot after high court agrees her English isn’t good enough”
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