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Stearns Amendment is Modern-Day Literacy Test

June 18, 2006
Press Release

June 28, 2006 - Rep. John Lewis opposes the Stearns Amendment (No. 21) to H.R. 5672, the Science, State, Justice, Commerce, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for FY 2007. This amendment would mandate that the Justice Department spend no funds to enforce the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Section 203 of the VRA requires that minority citizens who have been subjected to a history of discrimination be provided language assistance to ensure that they can make informed choices at the polls.

There are some mistaken ideas about Section 203 of the VRA. It does not offer voting assistance to illegal or non-naturalized immigrants. It refers only to U.S. citizens who may not speak English fluently enough to comprehend some of the complex ballot initiatives that are often a part of the voting environment today. More than 70% of the citizens who use the language assistance provision of the VRA are born in the United States and include not only Latino citizens, but Alaskan natives, American Indians and Asian Americans.

"The Stearns Amendment is a modern-day literacy test," said Rep. Lewis. "It is a back-door attempt, through the appropriations process, to cripple federal enforcement of Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. We must decide as a nation whether we want to live in a truly democratic society, or whether we want to reserve democracy for a privileged few. Are we suggesting, through the Stearns Amendment, that Native Americans, the only original citizens of this land, should not have the language assistance they may need to participate in the democratic process? That is not right, that is not fair, that is not just."

Language assistance is vital to the equal representation of Native Americans. In Apache County, Arizona, DOJ enforcement of the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act resulted in a 26 percent increase in Native American voter turnout, and it allows Native veterans who have defended democracy abroad, Navajo Code talkers who aided American intelligence efforts in World War II, as well as elderly tax-paying Native American citizens to participate knowledgeably in the electoral process.

The provision of Chinese language ballots in New York City helped more than 100,000 Asian-American citizens vote in recent elections. Even though the city is home to the largest Asian-American community in the country, they had never been able to elect an Asian American to a major elected post. Finally, due to DOJ language assistance support mandated by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, John Lui was elected to the City Council in 2001. These are just a few examples of the powerful benefit of the language assistance portions of the VRA. Rep. Lewis encourages his colleagues to vote NO on the Stearns Amendment.