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Lost In Translation? Texas Ballot Language Confuses Voters In Two Languages

Voters across Texas will vote for and against 10 state constitutional amendments on Tuesday.

But the language on the ballot describing the amendments may confuse some voters. For example, there’s an amendment that would “authorize the legislature to provide for a temporary exemption from ad valorem taxation of a portion of the appraised value of certain property damaged by a disaster.”

If you have a hard time understanding that in English, imagine if you are using a Spanish language ballot.


The Texas Secretary of State’s Office finalizes the language that appears on the ballots. 

Keith Ingram, Director of Elections Division for the Secretary of State's Office said it utilizes a service that translates the propositions into Spanish, "and then we have several staff members here in the elections division who review the Spanish before it is finalized.”

Texas Public Radio reviewed the ballot language that appears on the Bexar County ballot for our online voters’ guide, and asked a second pair of eyes to review the Spanish language translation.

Analia Voss has extensive translation experience with the City of San Antonio, and has also assisted TPR with Spanish-language translations.

Voss found a few grammatical errors and felt the ballot needed clearer language. 

"The main problem is, the way people speak in English or write in English is not the way you speak in Spanish," said Voss. "Unless you pay for quality translation, if you do it literally, it’s like doing Google Translate. You can’t go word-by-word because you lose the meaning. You’re not saying the same thing."

Voss said voters who speak and read mostly in Spanish might be at a disadvantage.

"You have to look at it in Spanish, a subject that’s already hard in English. And if the translation is poorly done, it’s even harder,” she said.

Keith Ingram with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office says voters have complained about the language on the ballots. 

“Every constitutional amendment election we get calls from folks who are wanting to know what the language means or why it’s worded the way it’s worded,” Ingram said. We typically refer those to the House Research Organization or to the sponsor of the bill.”

The League of Women Voters is familiar with complicated language on the ballot.

Madhu Sridhar, president of the League of Women Voters of San Antonio, believes this contributes to the low voter turnout in off-year elections. 

“It’s very difficult to understand what the amendments really mean,” Shridhar said. “One of the reasons why the voter turnout is low, especially for constitutional amendment elections, is because people don’t understand the amendments and they don’t know how it impacts them.”

The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization, released a voters’ guide this year that explains each amendment in plain English, as well as arguments for and against each proposal. 

Sridhar said the League of Women Voters don’t tell people how to vote. 

“We just believe in giving them the information that they need, (and) that the information is accurate and unbiased information with no spin,” she said.

Sridhar is hopeful that if voters have the information, the more likely they will get out and vote. 

The organization’s voters’ guide is available in English and Spanish online at Vote411.org, and can be found at all public libraries, and many schools and senior centers. 

The Bexar County ballot includes the 10 amendments plus general and special elections for the cities of Sandy Oaks, Schertz and Windcrest as well as bond elections for the City of Hill Country Village and Somerset Independent School District. 

Voters in Bexar County can cast a ballot at any polling place within the county. 

Find TPR’s voters’ guide — in English and Spanish. Our Spanish guide includes the corrections provided by Analia Voss.

Norma Martinez can be reached at Norma@TPR.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1.

Lauren Terrazas can be reached at Lauren@TPR.org and on Twitter at @terrazas_lauren.

Bri Kirkham can be reached at Bri@TPR.org and on Twitter at @BriKirk.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1
Lauren Terrazas can be reached at lauren@tpr.org and on Twitter at @terrazas_lauren
Bri Kirkham can be reached at bri@tpr.org or on Twitter at @BriKirk