In her role as a member of the South Dakota Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Taneeza Islam has spent the past several months learning about voting rights.
Part of that has been exploring language access for multilingual voters in the state.
“We’re an English-only state,” Islam said, explaining that government agencies in South Dakota per law cannot translate information with few exceptions.
That includes ballots and voting information.
In response to what she’s learned during her time on the advisory committee, Islam and South Dakota Voices for Peace have created translated versions of South Dakota District 14 sample ballots in time for next week's general election. Languages include Spanish, Nepali and Swahili.
Islam is the also the executive director of SD Voices for Peace, which is a local nonprofit committed to serving the refugee and immigrant communities.
“There’s a common misconception that if you don’t speak English, you can’t vote in our community,” she said.
The organization plans to mail out 10,000 translated sample ballots in Sioux Falls during the first week of November. Inside the envelopes will also be voter information and a printed version of the Spanish sample ballot. A QR code will also be included that directs people to the online Nepali and Swahili versions.
The printout will include information on how to check if someone is registered to vote and where to find their polling place. It also makes it clear that the sample ballot is only for District 14.
South Dakota Voices for Peace also plans to put the information on social media pages to get more outreach.
Voters can fill out the sample ballot at home and then use it as a guide when they go to the voting booth on Election Day, Islam said.
This isn’t the first time that Islam and Voices for Peace have turned to translating material for the multilingual community.
“There's just no infrastructure to meet the needs of our multilingual communities [or] access to services,” Islam said. “And we saw that super exacerbated during COVID because it wasn’t the government who was translating information, that was nonprofits like ours that were trying to keep multilingual communities informed of what was going on.”
Sample ballots and interpreters
The translation services are the group’s latest effort in getting out the vote. Nationally, people who aren’t fluent in English are allowed access to language services when they get to the ballot box, according the Voting Rights Act.
In South Dakota, that means either bringing in the translated sample ballot or having an interpreter assist someone who’s illiterate in English.
“The interpreter can’t tell them how to vote, but can just interpret the ballot and help them fill out the bubble if they need help with that,” Islam said.
Sara Frankenstein, a lawyer from Rapid City who also sits on the committee, said voters are allowed to bring filled-out sample ballots with them to the voting booth.
"There's nothing that says you can't bring in a sample ballot. That's why county auditors make them available for people there on the Secretary of State's website," Frankenstein said.
She encouraged people to mark the sample ballot ovals with an X and to tell poll workers that the sample ballot was part of the voters notes.
"You can't commit voter fraud by casting a sample ballot, it won't get counted," Frankenstein said.
Federal law offers language access at polls
Since 1975 when new provisions to the 1965 Voting Rights Act were enacted, certain states must offer voting assistance at the polls.
At least 5% of the state or counties must be members of a single-language minority group and are not proficient in English, according to the VRA.
South Dakota is not included in the group of states mandated to provide language assistance, according to the VRA. Minnesota provides Hmong and Indigenious language assistance in certain counties.
Minneapolis provides translated voting information in Spanish, Hmong, Somai, Vietnamese Russia, Chinese, Amharic, Lao, Ormo and Khmer, according to the Minneapolis city website.
“These laws are like minimum thresholds,” Islam said. “That doesn't mean that you shouldn't be doing something or that you can't do something.”
Islam challenged Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County to make sure all communities are civically engaged and that the democratic process is accessible to them, especially considering that recent Census data has showed that Sioux Falls is diversifying.
Black, Asian and Hispanic populations in Sioux Falls have nearly doubled between 2010 and 2020, according to Census data.
This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Nonprofit translates South Dakota sample ballots into Spanish, more