Surprise! English-only law is more than symbolic

Back in 2002, Steve King hadn’t yet become an embarrassment on the national stage; he was merely a crusader for intolerance in the Republican-controlled Iowa legislature. Tom Vilsack was a first-term governor nervously eyeing a midterm re-election campaign under the very popular President George W. Bush.

Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

Anyway, King was obsessed with passing a law declaring English the official language of Iowa. Didn’t you know how difficult it had become for Iowans to express themselves without official acknowledgment of English’s status?

Vilsack vetoed one version of the bill, then signed the rewritten bill that came to his desk. Disappointed liberals were assured that Vilsack had made the smart play by taking the issue off the table for the November election. Besides, the new bill contained all kinds of exceptions, so it would be little more than a symbolic measure.

Well, this week a judge in Polk County “ordered Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro to stop using languages other than English in the state’s official voter registration forms”, the Des Moines Register reported. (If you want to read the ruling, click the link to find a PDF version.)

In 2006 King, by then a U.S. Representative in Iowa’s fifth district, complained that then-Secretary of State Chet Culver had put voting information in Spanish, Laotian, Bosnian and Vietnamese as well as English on the secretary of state’s website.

Attorney General Tom Miller had determined such action was acceptable because the official English law allowed for “any language usage required by or necessary to secure the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America, or the Constitution of the state of Iowa.”

King filed suit against Culver and Mike Mauro, who was elected secretary of state in 2006, last year.  District Judge Douglas Staskal concluded that voter registration forms in languages other than English are against the law, and voided the “improper exercise of agency power.”

Miller, like Culver and Mauro a Democrat, may appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court:

“Our view is that although the Iowa English Language Reaffirmation Act requires all official forms to be in English, it does not prohibit government officials from providing materials in other languages as well,” Miller said. “We argued that position to the District Court. This principle can be particularly important in the area of voting rights of citizens.”

If this ruling is upheld, it will hamper efforts to register voters whose native language is not English.

I’m with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board, which wrote on Saturday that “it’s time for Iowa lawmakers to repeal this embarrassing law.”

They should do so because the law is mean-spirited and sends an anti-immigrant message. They should do so because it makes Iowa seem xenophobic. They should do so because it’s unnecessary when studies show today’s immigrants are learning English as quickly as their predecessors.

And to lawmakers who may have thought the law was toothless because it included exemptions, Judge Staskal’s ruling tells them otherwise. The law applies to “official action” from government, which is broadly defined. It could have a “chilling effect on speech by causing government employees to refrain from non-English communication all together,” he wrote.

There is still time for legislators to repeal the official English law this session.

Don’t let the ghost of Steve King constrain voting rights in the upcoming presidential election.

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