State senators voted Tuesday to bar production of government documents in any language other than English, courting a possible fight with the federal government.
The proposal by Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, is specifically aimed at the brochures mailed out before every general election by the Secretary of State's Office detailing all the measures on the ballot as well as the recommendations of a commission on whether judges should be retained in office.
Even heftier booklets are sent out before the primary and general elections each year from the Citizens Clean Elections Commission which give candidates a chance to make their case to voters.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said the state can't do that. She said the National Voting Rights Act, approved by Congress in 1965, requires that all voting materials be available in both English and that of minorities.
Smith said his SB 1409 does not run afoul of that law. He noted that it would not apply to the ballots themselves but only to the other voting materials.
Anyway, Smith argued, the federal law requires only that materials in other languages be "available.'' He said Arizona can meet that requirement by putting a translated copy of the booklets on a web site and making a translated version available at a government office.
Sinema said Smith is misreading the law.
The issue goes deeper than that.
That 1965 law includes specific provisions aimed at Arizona and eight other states with a history of discrimination. That includes getting federal "preclearance'' of any changes in election laws to ensure they do not adversely affect the rights of minorities.
State Elections Director Amy Bjelland told Capitol Media Services that the Department of Justice approved Arizona's booklets, including the requirement that it be sent out in languages other than English. She said these changes, if signed into law, could not take effect without federal approval.
SB 1409 needs a final roll-call vote before going to the House.
The Senate did give final approval Tuesday to a separate measure to tighten up the provisions of a 2006 voter-ratified constitutional amendment which requires that all official government acts be done in English.
That amendment says public employees and officials can have unofficial conversations with the public in any language they want. This change, pushed by Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, says such non-English conversations can take place only when the member of the public makes a specific request.
That bill now goes to the House.