Online translation tools can be useful to help order coffee when traveling abroad to a country where you don’t speak the language; but when it comes to translating important voting information for people who need it to cast their ballots, the tools can also cause serious confusion.
On one Texas county election website entrusted with providing essential voting materials to residents, automated translation software incorrectly translated the term “election runoff” into the equivalent of “election water leak” in Spanish.
This kind of haphazard translation not only has the potential to confuse voters, it can also turn them off from engaging in the electoral process altogether.
That’s why the ACLU of Texas recently undertook a review of election related materials on county websites throughout the state. The goal: To verify whether Texas counties were meeting standards for critical Voting Rights Act requirements meant to inform voters with low English language proficiency about their rights.
The review of the county websites revealed an unsettling trend. Thirty-six of the 88 counties in Texas required to comply with the Voting Rights Act language provisions did not provide adequate Spanish language voting materials. In fact, there were large discrepancies amongst the translations, some offering no translations at all. Throughout the website review process, it was apparent that several counties had relied heavily on machine-based translation services, such as Google Translate, which resulted in inaccurate translations.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was originally intended to combat voter suppression tactics and expand accessibility to communities most at risk for being excluded from voting. The language provisions section of the Act targets larger language minority communities that are particularly vulnerable due to their inability to access voting materials in a language with which they are most comfortable reading.
These language requirements now apply to counties throughout the U.S. where more than five percent of all voting age citizens are members of a language minority group with low English proficiency. The Voting Rights Act states that, in those counties, any voting or election related materials published by the county must be provided both in English and in the relevant minority language, which in Texas, is most often Spanish.
As part of the ACLU of Texas’s review, we sent letters demanding the 36 counties not in compliance with the Act take immediate steps to correct their website issues. Many of the counties did so immediately, agreeing to ensure that their voting and election related materials would be accessible and useful to Spanish-speaking voters. However, several counties have yet to respond to our request to fix their language access problems.
We will continue to work with Texas counties to fix current issues and those that may arise in the future. Ultimately it is up to all counties in Texas to regularly review their materials and have a plan to maintain required second language materials accurately updated for their constituents who need the information the most.
Election day is right around the corner and early voting is happening now. If you have questions about voting visit our voter ID page or call the Election Protection Hotline:
In English: 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683)
In Spanish: 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682)
In Arabic: 844-YALLA-US (844-925-5287)
In Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Hindi, Urdu, or Bengali: 888-API-VOTE (888-274-8683)