Orange County Registrar of Voters Put Out Faulty Farsi Translation in Voter Guides, Agency Moves to Fix

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A poll worker explains voter registration forms, which are translated into different languages. Jan. 7, 2020.

Information on how to get language support when voting in the upcoming election was translated incorrectly in Farsi in voter guides sent out by the Orange County Registrar of Voters last week.

“This is very concerning & will suppress the votes of one of the largest Iranian communities in the U.S.,” read a tweet from Roxana Akbari, a Mission Viejo resident and native Farsi speaker, this past weekend after she saw the error.

Around 32,000 Iranian Americans lived in Orange County in 2019, according to the latest available American Community Survey data. 

These numbers are just estimates. Iranian Americans have been historically underrepresented in the Census, according to the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a nonprofit organization that aims to serve the interests of that community.

Now to fix the error, the registrar will be sending out corrected translations to residents who requested voting materials in Farsi.

This is not the first time the County’s Registrar of Voters had issues with language translation.

In 2005, the Registrar mailed out over 7,500 Korean-language sample ballots with factual errors as well repeated and missing information. They then resent the corrected sample ballots, according to an article by the OC Register.

Akbari, who works as an assistant for Irvine City Councilmember Farah Khan, took to Twitter to point out the mistake in the voter guide. She said she tweeted out her concern as a member of the Iranian American community and not representing Khan.

“What happened is that they printed it wrong. Farsi is written from right to left and the alphabet letters are attached to each other,” Akbari told the Voice of OC. 

“They basically separated it all from each other and printed it completely backwards so it looked like nothing. It was not correct.”

Jackie Wu, the Community Outreach Manager for the Registrar of Voters, oversees the translation projects. Wu said the error was due to technical issues that occurred when they imported the translation into their design software.

“We’re making all efforts to really do our outreach. We responded immediately when we discovered that something was not correct with the translations, we uploaded the corrected translations that same day onto our website and we updated all of the electronic voter information guide,” she said.

Wu said the mistake should not cost too much to fix but did not provide an exact amount. She added that the around 80 people who requested a Farsi assistance will receive a corrected version in the mail. The corrected translation is also online.

“We’re actually planning to do that this afternoon,” Wu said Monday. “It’s possible they could receive it in the next few days.”

Faye Hezar, a partner specialist in the 2020 Census, has worked with the county’s registrar in the past to help communicate to the Iranian community. She said the registrar has been proactive in addressing the mistake and is appreciative of their efforts.

“Most people do speak (English) or they have access to someone that can help them,” Hezar said. “I do not think this is going to have any major effect on the voting, and especially with what they’re fixing.”

Hezar said she and her colleague Sudabeh Farokhnia will be joining the Registrar’s Voting Language Committee responsible for addressing language needs as they pertain to elections.

“We both are going to be a part of that moving forward. They understand that after things are printed, they need to be reviewed as well,” Hezar said.

Akbari said she too is appreciative that the Registrar was quick to address the error. She added that the incorrect translation has highlighted for some Iranian Americans the importance of organizing and increasing civic engagement so there is proper representation for their community.

“I think we all know that it obviously wasn’t intentional on part of the OC Registrar of Voters, but to me, I think it communicates some carelessness that they didn’t double check,” Akbari said. 

“It’s kind of unclear how we’re going to prevent this from happening in the future because even though it was a printing error, it seems like their level of connection to the community is pretty minor,” she added.

Wu said they are looking at making changes so this error doesn’t happen again.

“We know that there is something with the design software, so that’s something we’re gonna have to look into and figure out,” she said.

Akbari said the effect this error will have will not be known and that the Persian Americans who need language assistance are more likely to be from low income families or new citizens.

“We don’t know exactly how many people would have requested Farsi help after getting their unofficial voter guide in the mail this weekend,” Akbari said.  “We need to consider how what we’re putting out there will impact the most marginalized members of our community.” 

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him [email protected] or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.