Poorly Translated Ballots Could be “Hanging Chad” of 2004 Election

U.S. English Press Release, Oct. 29

In yet another example of government-endorsed multilingualism gone awry, election officials in San Diego County, Calif., are recalling more than 8,000 copies of the Spanish edition of the local Voter Guide after discovering that the translations were, according to one translator, “horrific.” The 8-1/2 x 14 booklet is being taken from local libraries and city halls after a host of errors were found, including missing words, absent accent marks and incorrect spelling.

“The San Diego voter guide represents just one of thousands of ballots, election handbooks and voter information materials that have been translated for this election,” said U.S. English Chairman Mauro E. Mujica. “There is no telling how many other translation errors have been made, or how many more will crop up between now and Nov. 2. One can only imagine the effect these may have on what is expected to be an extremely close election.”

The rise in translation errors is tied to the rise in multilingual materials as required by recent additions to federal law. The Department of Justice has been relentless in its pursuit of enforcing the unbalanced act, which mandates multilingual voting materials for languages such as Spanish and Japanese, but not others such as Arabic and Italian. In all, more than 300 counties nationwide have been forced to offer ballots in as many as six languages.

The San Diego voter guide, which included a passage that translates into, “People that are registered 29 and 15 days before an election will be commanded a brochure,” is the latest in a long line of election translation mishaps in the United States. Other recent lowlights have included:

• A 2002 Vietnamese ballot in Orange County, Calif., translated the description for the office of Sheriff as a “low-level officer who examines dead bodies.” The rampant mistranslations made the ballot virtually useless to the county’s 25,000 Vietnamese-speaking voters. (Source: Associated Press, March 21, 2002)

• An Illinois appellate court threw out the results of an election to allow the sale of certain alcoholic beverages after fundamental translation errors, including the use of the Spanish debida (“owe”) rather than bebida (“drink”). (Source: Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Apr. 17, 1997).

• A Miami ballot measure was cancelled before election day, after the discovery that Spanish-language ballots asked voters if they wanted they city’s parking concessions to be managed by entidades gubermentales (“government entities”) rather than the proper “private entities.” (Source: Miami Herald, Nov. 2, 2000).

“These incidents demonstrate what can happen when a misguided language policy grabs hold of the election process,” said Mujica. “Our government must take care to ensure that all citizens have a good enough grasp of English to cast a ballot, rather than promoting a parallel system. An additional layer of complexity only serves as an invitation to mischief and chaos in an already tumultuous election process.”

U.S. English, Inc. is the nation’s oldest and largest non-partisan citizens’ action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States. Founded in 1983 by the late Sen. S.I. Hayakawa of California, U.S. English, Inc. (www.usenglish.org) now has more than 1.8 million members.

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