Constitutional Clash: When English-Only Meets Voting Rights in Iowa

Constitutional Clash: When English-Only Meets Voting Rights in Iowa

by Michael A. Zuckerman

Cornell University
Yale Law & Policy Review, Vol. 28, 2010

Posted with permission from the author.  The following is an excerpt (citations have been excluded for space).  Click on the link at the bottom of the post to download the entire article. 

This paper examines the constitutional vulnerability of English-only laws as they relate to voting materials. The topic is timely in light of King v. Mauro, a recent Iowa decision that drew national attention by interpreting a state statute to bar non-English voter registration materials. In short, this paper argues that English-only policies as applied to voting are constitutionally suspect. After providing background about the English-only movement and the recent high-profile Iowa decision, the paper considers complex and uncertain areas of constitutional law, outlining how one might argue that English-only laws violate the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act. In the end, the nation has an important choice to make: encourage participation in the electoral process, or use voting rights as means to disenfranchise language minority citizens. If the nation continues down the latter path, civil rights lawyers must be ready to respond.


An ironic tension exists between politicians and an increasingly influential block of potential voters. During the 2008 election, Barack Obama and John McCain appealed to Hispanic voters by campaigning in Spanish,  yet states like Iowa prevented those very same voters from registering to vote in any language other than English. This is the new American reality, where the Spanish-speaking electorate is expanding rapidly as calls for forced assimilation and closed borders grow louder. A consequence of this has been the rise of English-only legislation in a number of states. One state in particular, Iowa, made national headlines last year when a state court in King v. Mauro interpreted its English-only statute to prevent the Iowa Secretary of State from providing non-English voter registration forms.  As a result, eligible voters in Iowa who did not speak English were hindered from registering to vote in state and national elections.

Legislative efforts, like Iowa’s, to restrict state communications to English are not new. Indeed, this debate has raged on since the founding of our nation. Although early attempts to establish a national language were rejected, politicians have continued to push language legislation since that time. The World War I era, for instance, saw the rise of state bans on teaching of foreign languages. Similarly the modern English-only movement has focused on establishing English as the official language of the United States and restricting government communications accordingly. To date, nearly 30 states have passed English language legislation, although many of these measures are merely symbolic and the courts have limited their scope. Using Iowa as a backdrop, this Article explores the constitutional vulnerability of English-only laws when states apply these laws to voting.

The purpose of this piece is not to argue that English-only laws are facially unconstitutional; rather, it aims to chronicle the recent application of English-only laws to voting and provide the legal foundation that practitioner and plaintiffs may use to overturn these laws as applied to voting. It considers complex and uncertain areas of constitutional law, detailing how one might argue that English-only laws violate the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.

To that end, Part I provides a brief overview of the English-only movement. It considers the history and status of language in the United States, language legislation, and significant court decisions that have informed the English-only debate. Part II turns to the Iowa English Language Reaffirmation Act. Specifically, it provides an overview of the Act, and then describes how one Iowa court, in King v. Mauro, recently interpreted this law to enjoin state officials from distributing non-English voter registration materials. Using Iowa as a backdrop, Part III argues that English-only legislation is legally suspect when applied to voting. It details the strongest arguments that can be marshaled against the constitutionality of laws like the Iowa English Language Reaffirmation Act.



Discussion of the recent controversy over English in Iowa begins with the state’s passage of the Iowa Language Reaffirmation Act (ILRA).  Signed into law by Governor Tom Vilsack in 2002, the Act declares English “to be the official language of the state of Iowa.” To that end, it mandates that “the English language shall be the language of government in Iowa.” The Act explains that this means “[a]ll official documents, regulations, orders, transactions, proceedings, programs, meetings, publications, or actions taken or issued [by the state] shall be in the English language.” The stated legislative purpose of the Act is to encourage proficiency in English, thereby promoting civic and economic participation in society. Indeed, although the Governor recognized that the legislation was not without controversy, he implied that enacting the English-only bill would improve the lives of children in Iowa.

The roots of the recent controversy in Iowa can be traced back to 2003 when then-Iowa Secretary of State Chester Culver made non-English voter registration forms available online.  By 2006, the forms were available in at least four languages: Spanish, Vietnamese, Laotian, and Bosnian. As the 2008 election approached, a number of individuals and groups, including U.S. Congressman Steve King and English Only Inc.* brought a lawsuit in Iowa state court contending that the non-English voter registration forms violate the ILRA. The Iowa Secretary of State defended its action by arguing that (1) its action did not violate the text of the statute; (2) even if it did violate the statute’s prohibition, it falls into one of the statute’s exceptions; and (3) the Act is unconstitutional.

*The other plaintiffs were Iowa County Auditors Scott Reneker, Joni Ernst, Judy Howrey, and Karen Strawn; Iowa Senators Paul McKinley, Jerry Behn, and Ralph Watts; Ngu Alons, a citizen of Iowa; and U.S English Only, Inc., an interest organization “dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English Language in the United States.”

Michael Zuckerman holds his undergraduate and law degrees from Cornell University.  Over the last two years, he has written four articles on constitutional law that have appeared (or will appear) in legal journals at Cornell, Yale, the University of Virginia, and Notre Dame.  Michael, who graduated law school in 2009, is currently a law clerk to a federal judge.

Download the entire article here 

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