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House GOP group seeks to eliminate bilingual ballots

56 lawmakers want voting act provision to lapse

WASHINGTON -- A group of House Republicans wants to do away with bilingual ballots and translation assistance at the polls, a reflection of how tensions over immigration are pervading other issues.

As Congress readies to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the lawmakers are lobbying their colleagues to let the act's language assistance provisions expire.

The 56 lawmakers support the act, but say the language assistance to voters -- provided throughout much of California -- undermines national unity, increases the risk of election fraud, and puts an undue burden on state and local governments.

''We believe these ballot provisions encourage the linguistic division of our nation and contradict the 'melting pot' ideal that has made us the most successful multiethnic nation on Earth," the members said in a letter earlier this year.

The group's effort probably won't succeed, in part because of other Republicans' concerns that it could further offend Hispanic voters upset by the enforcement-only immigration legislation the House passed in December.

Policy analysts said the focus on bilingual ballots illustrated a hardening of positions within the GOP as the debate on illegal immigration evolved.

''It's reflective of the broader divide in the Republican Party on the immigration issue and related cultural questions," said Marshall Wittmann, a former GOP Senate aide who is a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council.

''This division is now being reflected in collateral issues, like the Voting Rights Act," Wittmann added. Under President Bush, the GOP has emphasized courting Hispanic voters.

But many Republican lawmakers have also spotlighted illegal immigration as a key concern, contending that the continuing flow of illegal immigrants into the United States is transforming the nation culturally and must be stemmed. Such attitudes led to the passage of the House bill that would upgrade border security significantly, make illegal presence in the country a felony, and aiding of illegal immigrants a felony.

Bush is urging Congress to pass a bill that, along with beefed-up border security, includes a guest worker program and some legalization measures for undocumented immigrants.

The Senate and House are to conduct committee hearings on reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act. Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, prime sponsor of letting the language assistance provision expire, plans to submit his proposal as an amendment in the House Judiciary Committee.

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