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Plan to Ease Voter Registration for Spanish Speakers Stalled

Translated Form Still Not Available on FEC Web Site

By Michelle Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 2, 2004; Page A15

Federal promises to make registering to vote easier for Spanish-speaking voters by posting the required forms on the Internet have been lost in translation.

Seven months after the government hired a company to translate the material, and nearly a year after the English version was made available, nothing appeared online.

Election Assistance Commission Chairman DeForest Soaries called form a casualty of limited resources. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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On Friday evening, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, after questions from The Washington Post, rushed a translated version still under review onto its Web site. But as of yesterday afternoon, the Federal Election Commission did not offer the Spanish version on its site. At issue has been the 33-page National Mail Voter Registration form that allows people to register from anywhere in the country.

In January, two months after the English version appeared on the Internet, the FEC hired California-based Transcend, a company experienced in translating government documents, to translate the form. But after Transcend completed its work in April and handed the translation to the newly formed U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the project stalled.

Just a week ago, the commission turned over the document to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to review for inconsistencies among Spanish dialects. MALDEF had not finished its review when the commission posted the form online.

Commission Chairman DeForest Soaries, said the Spanish voter registration form had become a casualty of limited resources and a sprawling priority list.

He said federal law does not require the commission to provide voter registration forms in languages other than English. Even so, he acknowledged the value of the effort to voters. Latinos made up 5 percent of the overall electorate in the last election.

"It's obviously necessary because of the size of Hispanic community," he said. "And from the information we received, we get more requests for Spanish than other languages."

The commission was mandated by the Helping America Vote Act of 2002, a law intended to remove obstacles to the election process. It has four commissioners, appointed by the president with recommendations from both parties. Among its responsibilities, the commission is charged with creating a nationally uniform electoral process and administering federal aid to help states upgrade voting booths and train poll workers.

The commission, which began work early this year with a $1.2 million budget, inherited the translation contract from the FEC.

"I'm disappointed, but I'm not embarrassed because we've only had four months to get things done," Soaries said.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University political science professor and expert on Latino political behavior, said the delay amounted to voter disenfranchisement.

"This is the area that we have moved into in voting rights, these kinds of passive obstacles," he said. "That is very different from stealing votes, it just makes it harder for them to vote. . . . It's patently false that this so complicated they can't get it done in nine months."

The commissioners, however, said they wanted to post the Spanish version after reaching a finalized version that will eliminate confusion and incorporate new components of the law still being hashed out by agencies.

Many states offer online voter registration forms in both languages. The District and Maryland offer online forms in both languages; Virginia's is English only.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires language assistance in voting districts with a certain percentage of people whose limited language skills prevent them from competently participating in the electoral process.

"If we have our form posted, theoretically, if you live in a jurisdiction that isn't covered, you can pull down the national form," said Ray Martinez, another member of the commission.

The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a Latino advocacy group, launched a voter registration tool on the Internet this year for the upcoming election.

"If I provided it online in English and Spanish to open the doors of democracy, we would expect to see that at the federal level," said Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Texas-based organization.

The commission is scheduled to meet Aug 10, when it will review both forms. Martinez said changes are likely to be needed, but would be made quickly. "Every day is an opportunity for someone to get registered to vote," he said.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company