Cut trillions, not voting rights

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By Rob Witwer

The enormity of the federal government’s liabilities is the biggest challenge we face. As of the moment I write this, national debt stands at about $14.652 trillion (add a few billion by the time you read this). Yet debt is only a part of the equation: Boston University economist Lawrence Kotlikoff estimates that the “real liability” of the federal government is actually in excess of $70 trillion.
No wonder markets weren’t jumping for joy when Congress and the president agreed to a deal that nets only $900 billion in cuts over the next 10 years.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman has made a career fighting government growth, and he continues to be a fiscal hawk in Congress. His bill to end congressional pensions is sure to ruffle feathers among his colleagues. But another of Coffman’s proposals — to repeal Section 203 of the 1973 Voting Rights Act — has me scratching my head.
The Voting Rights Act requires counties to print ballots in other languages where there’s a significant percentage of people whose first language is not English. Coffman would end that requirement, which he says amounts to an unfunded mandate on counties.
There are several problems with this, principal among them being the fact that it negatively affects the ability of U.S. citizens to vote. I’ll say that again — we’re talking about U.S. citizens here. The right to vote is at the absolute core of representative government. I suppose one could argue that elections as a whole are expensive, and undoubtedly the federal government could save money by doing away with them altogether. But obviously that’s not an option. Elections should be robust and, above all, accessible. Otherwise, we lose what Abe Lincoln called government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
The fact is there are many American citizens who learned to speak another language before English. I think that’s a good thing. It means people chose to come here. And, it’s always been the case. Those who have studied the founding era may recall that the first newspaper to report the Declaration of Independence was a German-language publication called the Pennsylvanisher Staatsbote.
It’s true that limited English proficiency is a prerequisite for U.S. citizenship, but ballots contain unusual language. How often do you hear the word “assessor” outside the context of a county race? And as difficult as ballot initiatives and the Blue Book are to understand in English, can you imagine trying to figure them out in a second language? None of us benefits when our fellow citizens have limited access to information they need to make wise choices.
I would hope every American becomes as proficient as possible in English, because that maximizes their options for employment and education. But in the case of recently naturalized citizens, high proficiency takes time.
There can be no doubt this proposal creates division among citizens when we desperately need to come together to face the huge, existential threats to our nation’s fiscal solvency. This proposal won’t pass Congress. It won’t become law. But it will consume an enormous amount of time and effort, with no foreseeable outcome other than bitterness and suspicion. Finally, repealing Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act won’t put a dent in federal spending. In all likelihood, it won’t save the amount of money the federal government shelled out since the time you had your last meal.
But as long as members of Congress are willing to pick big fights to attack costs, we should applaud the sentiment, with one suggestion: How about cutting trillions instead of millions? Social Security, Medicare and dozens of long-term unfunded liabilities are in need of reform, or they will one day cease to exist. And the American entrepreneurial class (which, by the way, includes many Americans whose first language was not English) desperately needs government off its back so it can create jobs.
I applaud Congress’ efforts to cut costs. But repealing Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act isn’t the answer. We need to get on with the bigger problems we face — together, as Americans.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”