NASHVILLE Nashville voters yesterday rejected a proposal to make English the mandatory language for all government business, easing fears that the measure could damage the city's reputation and cost agencies millions in federal funding.
With 100% of precincts reporting early this morning, unofficial results showed the "English First" proposal losing with about 57% of voters against it and 43% in favor. Proponents said using one language would have united the city and saved money.
The city would have become the nation's largest to pass such a measure. Similar measures have passed elsewhere, though business leaders, academics, the city's mayor and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen opposed the "English First" proposal, which the governor had called "mean-spirited."
"The results of this special election reaffirms Nashville's identity as a welcoming and friendly city, and our ability to come together as a community," Mayor Karl Dean said in a news release.
The referendum's leader, Metro Councilman Eric Crafton, had promoted it as a way to unite Nashville and prevent the kind of extensive translation services and the associated expenses provided by cities like New York or Los Angeles. He had pushed for English-only since 2006 and got the issue before voters through a petition drive.
"I support the collective wisdom of the voters. I am not going to bring English up again because the people of Nashville have spoken," Crafton said during a phone interview late last night.
It wasn't clear exactly how much translation would have been silenced had the measure passed. While it called for all government communication and publications to be printed in English, it would have allowed an exception for public health and safety.
Detractors also said the English First policy may not have survived a court challenge because Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires agencies that receive federal dollars to provide free translation services.
For instance, health department spokesman Brian Todd said the agency could have lost up to $25 million in federal funds if it halted translation services.
The only documented expenditure is for Monterey, Calif.-based Language Line Services, which provides phone interpretations in 176 languages. Expenses for the service have totaled $522,287 since 2004. By comparison, the special election cost $300,000.
Nearly one in five registered voters cast ballots yesterday, a high turnout for a special election in Nashville. A total of 73,896 people cast ballots, compared with 51,484 people who voted in the last special election in 2005.
Supporter Glenda Paul, 35, said as she exited a voting precinct yesterday that having one language was an important part of keeping government small.
"If I moved to France to start a business, I would be expected to speak French and that doesn't mean that I am not welcome there," she said. "It just means I need to respect the language."
But Claire King, 31, who lives in East Nashville, said yesterday that she voted against the amendment because "it sends a message of intolerance."
The debate over establishing a national language is centuries old.
In 1780, John Adams proposed to the Continental Congress an academy be created to "purify, develop, and dictate usage of" English, the American Civil Liberties Union reported. His proposal was rejected as undemocratic.
Thirty states, including Tennessee, and at least a dozen cities have declared English their official language, said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based ProEnglish. The organization contributed at least $19,000 to support the referendum. Opponents collected about $300,000.
About 10% of Nashville's nearly 600,000 people speak a language other than English in their homes, according to census data. The city is 5% Hispanic and home to the nation's largest Kurdish community and refugees from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.