Polls were set to close at 7 p.m. CDT in the special election that has sparked intense debate in the city of nearly 600,000 people. Proponents say using one language would unite the city, but business leaders, academics and the city's mayor worry it could give the city a bad reputation. Similar measures have passed elsewhere.
Exactly how much translation would be silenced if the measure passes is murky. While it requires that all government communication and publications be printed in English, it allows an exception for public health and safety.
For example, officials with the health department have said the public health exemption might allow health workers to use translation to tell an immigrant with tuberculosis or a sexually transmitted disease how to avoid contaminating others. But workers with the department, one of the largest users of translation services, likely would have to use English with someone who violated animal control or codes ordinances.
A total of 13,429 people cast ballots during the early voting period, compared with 10,000 people who voted early in the last special election in 2005.
"It is just an important part of keeping government small by having one language," supporter Glenda Paul, 35, said as she exited a Donelson voting precinct Thursday. "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. It just means I need to respect the language."
The referendum's leader, city Councilman Eric Crafton, 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 has pushed for English only since 2006 and got the issue before voters through a petition drive.
Business leaders, academics, religious leaders, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Gov. Phil Bredesen argued the measure would tarnish the city's welcoming image, harm tourism and business recruitment and endanger federal funding for many city services.
Claire King, 31, who lives in East Nashville, said Thursday that she voted against the amendment because "it sends a message of intolerance." She said she thought multiple perspectives and languages enrich to the city's culture.
Nashville's documented translation expenses have totaled $522,287 since 2004. By comparison, the special election cost $300,000.
Thirty states, including Tennessee, and at least a dozen cities have declared English their official language, said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of Arlington, Va.-based ProEnglish, which donated money to support the referendum.
About 10 percent of Nashville's nearly 600,000 people speak a language other than English in their homes, according to census data. The city is 5 percent Hispanic and home to the nation's largest Kurdish community and refugees from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
If the measure passes, it will take effect within 10 days.