English-Only Implications Lost On Sen. Rubio

January 31, 2012 12:47 pm ET — Brian Powell

Fueled by the rhetoric of their presidential candidates, the Republican Party is moving at full steam to make English the official language of the United States, despite fears that such a policy could lead to non-English speaking citizens being disenfranchised at the ballot box.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is the latest member of the GOP to shrug off the serious repercussions that an official language policy could have on non-Anglophone citizens. In an interview on CNN, host Soledad O'Brien asked Rubio if he was concerned that making English the official language could result in ballots being printed exclusively in English, effectively disenfranchising voters who aren't fluent in the language. Rubio's response was as startling as it was honest — the issue simply "doesn't bother" him.

O'BRIEN: But you know the reality of this would be, right? That you wouldn't have ballots that would have English and Spanish, you'd only have ballots in English and other things like that, so the actual practical implications

RUBIO: That doesn't bother me as much. Yeah, the ballots don't bother me as much. I don't think anyone's talking about prohibiting that. My name is spelled the same way in English and in Spanish, for example. I don't think that's as big an issue. You can confront that at the state level.

I don't think they should ban Spanish ballots, because certainly, voting is a fundamental right. But what we're talking about here — is there gonna be an official unifying language of our country? Yes, it should be the English language. It's the official language of Florida, and the world hasn't ended there.

O'BRIEN: And we haven't had an official language, and the world hasn't ended there, either.


To be clear, Rubio isn't calling for English-only ballots, but he does seem to be completely ignorant of the sentiment behind previous attempts at "official English" bills. One example, from Fox News Latino:

Those who support Official English bills say they are necessary because the business of government should not be conducted in foreign languages. They believe that foreign language services and documents - such as government agency documents, applications, driver's license exams and voting ballots, for instance - make immigrants less driven to learn English. [...]

Indiana Sen. Mike Delph, also a Republican, said that his state's residents are tired of pressing "1" for English when calling businesses, or hearing Spanish announcements over the Wal-Mart intercom or struggling to understand a worker in the McDonald's drive-thru.

He said that although the measures in the state legislature don't address those situations, they send the message that that English is the language to be spoken in Indiana.

He said the state's website shouldn't have Spanish information, and that public universities should not even print applications for foreign students at taxpayer expense.

Rubio also doubles down on his ineptitude on the subject by claiming that "Rubio" is "spelled the same way in English and in Spanish," ostensibly arguing that Spanish-speaking voters wouldn't need to be able to read anything else on the ballot — they just need to look for his name and put their mark by it. This logic is offensive on a number of levels.

First, being able to recognize names is not as useful as Rubio would make it seem. It's also necessary to be able to comprehend the instructions that inform voters about how to vote and explain the various referendums and local issues that also appear on ballots. Rubio should know that voting — especially for Floridians — is never as easy as it seems.

But perhaps most obviously, Rubio's comparison completely ignores the fact that millions of Americans don't speak English or Spanish, and may in fact use a completely different alphabet. "Rubio" probably looks quite a bit different in Mandarin than it does in English.

True to its heritage as a "melting pot" of world cultures, hundreds of languages are spoken in the United States; and while most of its residents speak English, there are over 55 million people in the U.S. who speak a language other than English at home. This number is growing — populations of people speaking Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and others have swelled over the past 30 years. And — for now — they can vote.