THE BLOG
10/31/2014 11:58 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2014

What if Officials Decide Coffman's English-Spanish Dictionary Idea Is Better?

Yesterday, during what was apparently Colorado's first Spanish-language candidate debate, hosted by moderators Vanessa Bernal and Juan Carlos Gutierrez on Denver's Univision TV affiliate, Rep. Mike Coffman said:

Coffman: "The federal government has obligated local governments to send bilingual ballots to everyone. I think that bilingual ballots should only go to people who need them. It's a question of saving money. I would hope that every voter will be able to get the information that he needs in a language he can understand."

But back in 2011, when Coffman proposed repealing the section of the Voting Rights Act requiring ballots to be printed in multiple languages, Coffman said nothing about making sure those who needed translated ballots get them.

Coffman: "Since proficiency in English is already a requirement for U.S. citizenship, forcing cash-strapped local governments to provide ballots in a language other than English makes no sense at all," Coffman told the Denver Post at the time.

I went back to the archive, and I couldn't find a single instance in 2011 where Coffman said everyone who needs a bilingual ballot should have one. The best I could find was an acknowledgement that some voters have "legitimate needs," but he suggested second-class solutions, like making a sample ballots available to voters somehow, without any guarantees that they even get this.

His 2011 proposal, by turning ballot-translation decisions over to local authorities and releasing local jurisdictions from the federal requirement, contradicts Coffman's statement yesterday that he wants to provide a "bilingual ballot" to "people who need them." That's not consistent with his actual 2011 proposal.

What if local officials decide that Coffman's dictionary idea is better and cheaper?

So after his debate yesterday, I asked Coffman if he'd offered a new position on English-only ballots.

He said, "No."

Coffman: "I think I was always opposed to them because the way the Justice Department took it. And they have backed away. But it wasn't just to the voters that needed them. It was going to be to every voter, an unfunded mandate by the federal government. I just thought that that was ridiculous. And there are all kinds of ways that are cheaper than that to disseminate the information. Obviously the county clerks got to make the decision, but right now it's, if they can reach a certain threshold of population. But what about the people that English isn't their language and they are below the threshold. And so we just need a different system that's smarter and certainly can be more cost-effective."

The Voting Rights Act requires ballots in multiple languages only in areas with large populations that are nonproficient in English

So if Coffman truly believes that Spanish-language ballots should be provided to those voters who need them, he'd support the requirement to do so in the Voting Rights Act, despite the cost. Sure, it could be tweaked, but he'd support the mandate.

Instead, Coffman is saying the expense is more worrisome to him than the possibility of excluding voters who aren't proficient in English.

Unfortunately, journalists covering the debate between Coffman and his Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff, did not report this key point.