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Asian voters renew call for bilingual ballot mandate

Jared Lindh

As voting numbers go, Chinatown is on the rise. Boston’s largest Asian American community now represents one of the heaviest voting blocs in the Third Suffolk District, according to the Coalition for Asian American Voting Rights.

In the aftermath of the recent resignation of former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi — who was the state representative for the Third Suffolk, which also includes the North End and parts of the South End, Beacon Hill and Roxbury — a familiar cry for electoral equity has once again arisen from the city’s Asian American advocates.

As Chinatown prepares to have its say in the upcoming special election to fill DiMasi’s vacant spot in the state Legislature, residents and activists say they are worried they will not be able to vote using the same fully bilingual ballots that they have used in recent elections.

The item of specific concern is the presentation of candidates’ names.

Because Western names do not have corresponding words in Mandarin, the official Chinese spoken language, a special process called “transliteration” is used to convert the names into a writing system that Chinese-reading voters can understand. For example, former U.S. Sen. and current Vice President Joe Biden’s last name would be represented on the ballot by a number of Chinese characters, the combined sounds of which would mimic the English pronunciation of the name.

Transliteration proponents say that the practice is doubly important to elderly citizens, many of whom took their U.S. citizenship exam in their native language. The practice is neither new nor unique to Boston — it is practiced throughout the world, including in several local Chinatown newspapers.

The transliteration fight dates back to July 2005, when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the City of Boston claiming that Boston poll workers incorrectly marked the ballots of Asian voters who didn’t speak English. The suit argued that the city’s practices violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — namely, its prohibition of voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group.

By September 2005, an out-of-court agreement had been reached, and the city pledged to provide fully bilingual voting ballots for its Chinese and Vietnamese communities through 2008.

That settlement expired in December. Much to the chagrin of transliteration supporters, Secretary of State William F. Galvin, Massachusetts’ chief electoral officer, opposes the practice.

In July 2007, he challenged the Justice Department agreement in federal court, claiming transliteration using characters that have multiple meanings could lead to unintended confusion and possible insult to candidates whose names might be incorrectly translated. Galvin cited several problematic examples in published reports, including the possible interpretation of former Gov. Mitt Romney’s name as “Sticky Rice,” one-time GOP presidential candidate Fred Thompson’s name as “Virtue Soup,” and Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s name as “Rainbow-Farmer.”

Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association and staunch transliteration advocate, says that while these translations are technically possible, they would never appear on ballots like that.

“That is absolutely a misunderstanding of the Chinese language,” she said. “Any Chinese language expert will tell you, [transliteration] is done every day, all over the world, and you only use certain characters that are positive. There is even a special pool of characters for the transliteration of names.”

Yet Galvin spokesman Brian McNiff told the Banner that the secretary’s position on ballot transliteration had not changed since the expiration of the Justice Department agreement.

“[Transliteration] could create confusion in voter’s minds, especially with names that are not in common usage. Secondly, he is also not in favor of changing election laws for individual communities,” said McNiff.

City Councilor-at-Large Sam Yoon, who recently declared his candidacy for mayor, had strong words for Galvin.

“If this is what the secretary truly believes, it is insulting and demeaning to Chinese communities,” said Yoon, who enjoys strong support in Chinatown. “Election law should be amended to protect voting rights in whole communities.”

To that end, Yoon filed a home rule petition calling for bilingual ballots in the City Council in September 2007. After passing the council unanimously, members of the Boston contingent in the state Legislature brought the measure to the State House.

After it languished there for most of last year, a revised bill calling for the transliteration of candidates’ names “in every polling place in the City [of Boston] where there are at least 35 registered voters with Chinese surnames” was re-filed in both houses of the Legislature last month, sponsored by state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and state Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez.

To address concerns of mistaken translations, the proposed law would give candidates the opportunity to review the transliteration of their names, and approve or deny their inclusion on ballots.

In keeping with current election law, the petition also holds that the final transliteration will still be subject to the approval of the city Election Department for local elections, and the secretary of state’s office for state and federal elections.

Finally, the petition calls for the publication of the transliterated candidates’ names “as soon as practicable.”

Yoon said he hopes the petition will go to vote before the end of the current legislative session in June. The effort has received widespread support on the city level, but Lowe said she remains wary of the big picture.

“Getting a bill through the Legislature is a big challenge for a small community, particularly [considering] we’re faced with opposition from the secretary of state,” said Lowe, “That’s really our big problem. If the chief of elections for the state is against the bill, then I think it makes it a real uphill political battle.”