11/02/2012 03:16 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Keeping Voters' Tongues in Check

As the presidential elections draw near, Obama and Romney are paying closer attention than ever to the language they use to make their cases. Every word they state can have an impact on potential voters. Unfortunately, both candidates are likely to miss out on countless votes precisely because of a language barrier.

The Voting Rights Act, a federal civil rights law, was designed to protect minorities from discriminatory voting practices. In 1975, Congress extended this protection to members of language minority groups - people who speak Spanish and Asian languages, as well as Native American and Alaskan Native languages. Whenever 5% or more of the people in a given jurisdiction speak a language other than English, the law requires officials to provide ballots in those languages.

Jurisdictions with large numbers of language minority groups are far from uncommon throughout the United States, a linguistic melting pot where one in every five people speaks a language other than English at home. Under the law, more than 335 jurisdictions in 30 states are required to provide ballots, registration forms, and other support for voters in at least one language that isn't English. Yet, in every election cycle, many polling places fail to comply with the law. As a result, many voters are left behind.

But don't all voters speak English? Naturalized citizens might have a good enough command of basic English to pass a citizenship test, but that does not mean they will be comfortable voting in that language. We only need to consider the term "hanging chad" to be reminded of how complicated voting instructions and ballots can be, even for people who speak English natively.

Blocking citizens from voting is anti-democratic, which is why federal law prohibits it. During his last year in office, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13166 to strengthen support for language minorities even further. The order requires federal agencies to improve their access to individuals with limited English proficiency.

It might seem obvious that language should not stand in the way of voters' rights in any modern democratic society, but not everyone agrees. In a Republican primary debate in January, Newt Gingrich stated that he would support having ballots in English only. Romney said he concurred. Of course, that hasn't stopped him from campaigning in Spanish, an important language not only in America today, but in his own family history.

Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1912, fleeing the Mexican revolution. Mitt's grandparents had moved from Utah to a Mormon colony in Mexico due to the U.S. government's prosecution of polygamy. Mitt and Anne's son Craig Romney reminded us of the family's Mexican immigrant background during a speech - delivered in fluent Spanish - on August 30th in Tampa at the Republican National Convention. Given his family's background and his son's own proficiency in Spanish, why would Romney want to limit the ability of Spanish-speaking citizens to cast a vote for him?

Ensuring that our linguistically diverse citizenry can vote is critical no matter what the cost. But, as it turns out, providing voters with language assistance is actually inexpensive. A 2005 study of election officials in 31 states covered by 203, the majority of jurisdictions reported that they incurred no additional costs, and the remainder found that costs were minimal. The Government Accountability Office reported similar findings in 1984 and 1997.

If the argument against providing language support to voters is that they should all learn to speak "the language of this country," let us remember that Navajo, Seminole, Choctaw, and many other native languages were spoken here long before English was. And lest we forget, America has no official language.

So, as we witness the presidential candidates carefully minding their language in the run-up to the election, perhaps we should pay less attention to the remarks that are tongue-in-cheek, and more attention to whether or not they will keep the rights of Americans who speak many tongues in check.