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Bilingual ballots: Do they unify or polarize?

Politicians these days are busy promoting voter registration. But some of the registrants, as newly naturalized immigrants, will be unable to read English well enough to vote. So on Nov. 6, voters in 203 US counties and towns will be provided with bilingual ballots.

And therein lie bones of contention. To some, bilingual ballots are shining proofs that no United States citizen can be kept from voting simply by a language barrier. To others, they are dangerous symbols of divisiveness, encouraging an underclass of citizens unassimilated into the American mainstream. On one thing, however, many agree: The present law bears strange fruit.

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Jay Patterson, registrar of voters in San Francisco, knows just how strange. Two months ago the Census Bureau told him that the city's trilingual ballot (English, Spanish, and Chinese) was no longer necessary. Under a 1982 amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the bureau is charged with determining which of the nation's voting districts must issue multilanguage ballots. The key to qualifying: At least 5 percent of a district's residents must make up, in the words of the amendment, ''a single language minority who do not speak or understand English adequately enough'' to vote.

Surprisingly, San Francisco failed to qualify. No one group of non-English-speaking citizens there constitutes 5 percent of the district's population. So Mr. Patterson canceled plans for the trilingual ballot - and for printing the city's explanatory 96-page voter pamphlet in Spanish and Chinese. Eleven days ago, however, the city attorney's office pointed back to a 1980 consent decree with the federal government (in which San Francisco agreed to go an extra mile for minority voters to make up for past discrimination) and ordered the registrar to reinstate the trilingual ballot and pamphlet.

All of which strikes Mr. Patterson as a bit odd. He says it costs about $100, 000 for the English-language pamphlet - 25 cents apiece for the city's 400,000 voters. The translated versions, however, cost about $50,000. But only 1,000 voters have requested the Spanish version, and only 3,000 the Chinese. Cost per pamphlet for Spanish-speakers, Patterson says: about $23.

Debaters can draw all sorts of conclusions here. Some will say that the $50, 000 could have been used to hire several Spanish- and Chinese-speaking English teachers. Others will be saddened that 4,000 US citizens needed a consent decree to give them what the Voting Rights Act should have provided in the first place: ready access to the electoral process.

Some, looking to other examples, will sigh over Los Angeles, whose thousands of non-English-speaking citizens don't quite constitute 5 percent of the population. Others, however, will recall the example of a Colorado jurisdiction of about 200 people which, on ''Census Day'' (April 1) in 1970, had some 20 Spanish-speaking migrant workers passing through - and which, for years afterward, had to provide bilingual ballots.

The law, it seems, needs clarification - if only by adding numerical thresholds along with percentages, so that the thousands of non-English-speakers in large urban districts won't be denied services available to a handful in tiny ones.

Beyond the present law, however, lie more fundamental questions about the multilingual approach. Does a bilingual ballot - and its cousin, bilingual education - smooth the way for non-English-speakers as they travel the road toward cultural assimilation? Or does it symbolize the nation's acceptance of a permanent cadre of ''foreign'' citizens? Will it promote national unity by enfranchising more of the populace? Or will it simply polarize the citizenry? Is it a foundation stone of equal opportunity? Or does it point toward the day when even the Federal Register will have to be printed in several tongues?

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Some try to drown such questions under calls for a constitutional amendment to make English the nation's official language. Others try to avoid the questions by refusing to contemplate the consequences of bilingualism. Neither way will work: The stakes are too large. Given the growing ''Hispanicization'' of the nation (including the possibility that the 51st state might be Puerto Rico), the nation deserves a clearer sense of where it is headed - and how it wants to talk along the way.

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