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ACLU says Bexar County inaccurately translated ‘election runoff’ as ‘election drainage’

September 25, 2018

Spanish-speaking voters in Bexar County may have been bewildered when they visited the county’s website for information about last week’s runoff election in Senate District 19.

The voting materials in Spanish, required by law, were created using Google Translate, resulting in a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

“The issue we have with that is that it generates translations that are literal and not always meaningful for the reader,” said ACLU legal consultant Matthew McCarthy.

In this case, that meant the words “election runoff” were translated into the Spanish equivalents of “election water leak” and “election drainage,” McCarthy said.

Bexar County wasn’t the only one with Spanish snafus. The ACLU has sent notices to Bexar and 35 other counties that they could be violating the Voting Rights Act for insufficiently providing voting materials in Spanish. The letters are the result of a website audit the organization conducted earlier this year, McCarthy said.

That’s a failure rate of about 40 percent: 88 counties are required to post materials in Spanish, McCarthy said, and the issues ranged from inaccurate translations to no translations at all.

Jacque Callanen, the Bexar elections administrator, confirmed the department was using Google Translate. She said the department never received a complaint from voters about the quality of its translations.

“Our initial reaction was that we were grateful they brought it to our attention,” said Callanen, who received the letter Monday.

Google Translate is the standard for the entire county website, Callanen said, and her department assumed it covered the translation requirements.

The ACLU’s audit only examined online material. Callanen said bilingual ballots are provided by the secretary of state’s office.

The Bexar elections department is planning to consult with the county’s information technology unit Thursday to find a way to fix the issue, Callanen said.

McCarthy said that has been the response from most counties that have replied so far. He doesn’t think there was any malicious intent in the translations.

“It might be a resource issue or it may be that they just don’t have this requirement at the top of their minds,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think there’s any intention to withhold any information.”

One possible solution is to take the material from the secretary of state’s website. While that site wasn’t included in the ACLU’s audit, McCarthy said its translations are generally very good.

Most of the material counties are required to post are available on the secretary of state’s page, he said.

Dylan McGuinness covers local politics and the Bexar County government for the Express-News. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | dylan.mcguinness@express-news.net  | Twitter: @DylMcGuinness

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