LAS VEGAS » Joshua Pajarillo stood outside Seafood City, greeting fellow Filipinos in Tagalog — one of his native country’s main languages — and trying to get them to stop and fill out Clark County’s new voter registration form.
Responding to a recent surge in Asian voter populations, Nevada and 10 other states are being compelled by federal law to print ballots and other voting materials in languages other than English. Other large jurisdictions making the move include San Diego County, which is translating materials into Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese, and Cook County in Illinois, which is translating into Hindi.
But on that day last month, Pajarillo, a pastor here, had a problem with the new form. One man he tried to register did not understand some of the Tagalog words — so the two had to compare it to the original English.
"It wasn’t written in words that people use every day," Pajarillo said.
Fortunately, the two men are bilingual, so using the new form was a matter of choice rather than necessity.
Su Nguyen, who works as a Vietnamese language coordinator for the registrar of voters in San Diego County, also ran into a translation problem recently. The word for "registration" was initially translated using a term associated with communist prison camps.
"People, when they see that word, it brings back bad memories," he said.
The translation was corrected.
These are among the many challenging scenes playing out in the 22 cities and counties in 11 states nationwide where Asian-American populations have acquired new status under the federal Voting Rights Act. Section 203 of the act requires ballots, forms, pamphlets and signs to be translated wherever 5 percent of the local population — or more than 10,000 voting-age citizens — speak the same native language and have limited proficiency in English.
Other hurdles include translation gaffes that wind up scaring voters away or misinforming them, or recalcitrant election departments not fully complying with the law. In some sites monitored during the 2008 elections, poll workers "disparaged translated materials," according to a report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national civil rights advocacy group. And different populations have different proficiency levels: Only half of Chinese Americans say they speak English very well, while 92 percent of Tagalogs say they do.
As of the 2010 census, the 11 states with new populations covered by the law are Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Washington. In Nevada, the Filipino population grew 142 percent in a decade, reaching 98,000, or 3.6 percent of the total population, in 2010. Most live in Clark County. Nationwide, Asians are the nation’s fastest-growing racial group, increasing to nearly 6 percent of the population in 2011 from less than 1 percent in less than 50 years, according to the Pew Research Center.
Some election districts have had to hire staff in the midst of budget cutbacks to comply with the federal law. The change also raises the question of whether translated ballots and other materials will help bolster turnout among Asian immigrants, who lag behind other minority groups when it comes to voting.
Election department employees, national voting rights groups and community organizers alike see the law as an important step that inevitably leads to greater political participation — independent of whether the people in a given community actually use materials in their native languages.
"It is often a source of community pride and a signal that it is a large enough group for political mobilization," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, who directs a national survey of Asian-American voters.
If Asian-Americans turn out next month it might favor President Barack Obama since three-quarters of Asian-Americans are registered Democrats, according to a survey by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Nguyen, the San Diego coordinator, said the law had "made a big difference" with the city’s large Vietnamese and Chinese communities. More than 10,000 Vietnamese voters have registered in the past year, nearly twice as many as were previously registered.
"When you go into a coffee shop or a restaurant, people are engaged — they are talking about the election," he said.
Being able to tell local Vietnamese-Americans that the federal government has recognized their population also "takes away some of the mistrust" they have, a legacy of the political turmoil they left behind, Nguyen said. "The law makes them feel more secure."
In New York City, the problem has been getting the board of elections to comply.
Chi-Ser Tran, voting rights organizer for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that ballots in Bengali would not be available in Queens in time for Election Day. Interpreters will be available, Tran said, for the 4,000 Indian voters who will have to use ballots in English. Calls to the Board of Elections were not returned.
Still, Glenn Magpantay, a director at the Asian American fund, remained optimistic about places across the country where voters will be seeing ballots in Asian languages for the first time.
"Even if you speak English," Magpantay added, "having a ballot in your language sends a message of inclusion."