South Dakota election officials don’t need to make special provisions any longer for speakers of American Indian native languages in any of the 66 counties.
Previously the federal government had required special steps in 18 counties.
The audio recordings of American Indian speakers reading the names and the other information written on the election ballots don’t have to be used in 2012.
Secretary of State Jason Gant said the AutoMARK voting machines will continue to be used, but the audio ballots will be only in English, rather than in English and Lakota.
Starting in 2006 the AutoMARK technology was used to deliver information in Lakota in 11 counties. They were Day, Marshall, Dewey, Roberts, Tripp, Ziebach, Mellette, Todd, Jackson, Shannon and Bennett.
Where required by federal law, some counties also needed to take steps such as providing interpreters at polling places to help voters and airing public service announcements in Lakota on American Indian radio stations.
One of the weaknesses in the federal requirements was the recognition only of Lakota, to the exclusion of Nakota and Dakota translations.
Dropping the requirements for 2012 will save some money. There were precincts where no one used the translations services. There also will be savings of time for county auditors and the state elections office.
But there is something odd about such a broad reversal by the federal government in a minority voting-rights matter, especially in these times.
The common explanation for the change in South Dakota is an increase in English proficiency and literacy since the 2000 census.
That very well might be true. But something else happened between the 2000 and the 2010 censuses on a nationwide basis that might also provide an explanation.
The 2000 census data were used for making the minority language determinations. The 2010 census results weren’t.
Instead, a relatively new system was instituted nationwide by the U.S. Census Bureau. That system is called the American Community Survey.
The ACS has been three decades in testing and gradual adoption. It took effect nationwide in 2005.
It replaced the old long-form census questionnaire that went to one in six households every 10 years. The new ACS samples 3 million addresses per year instead.
From those 3 million potential sets of results, various estimates are made. You can see the math getting fuzzy very fast.
For areas with populations below 65,000, the Census Bureau says the estimates have to be gathered over periods of up to five years in order to arrive at an appropriate sample size for data publication.
Under that methodology it doesn’t seem likely that an accurate estimate could have been developed for any of the rural counties of Indian country in South Dakota.
Secretary of State Gant said he was surprised that South Dakota wouldn’t need to provide Lakota translations any longer.
He’s not closing the file on the topic, however. He sent letters to each of the nine tribes’ elected chairmen and presidents, asking for their thoughts on a local solution for people who need translation help.