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Asian Americans struggle to keep voting rights

Lydia Lowe

Asian Americans struggle to keep voting rights

An African American man could become president, but many of Boston’s Asian American citizens will lose equal access to the vote in this November’s election. In an attempt to prevent that from happening, the local Asian American community will hold a civil rights rally at the State House today to demand action on corrective legislation.

Chinese and Vietnamese bilingual ballots, established through the City of Boston’s 2005 agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, are due to expire in December. But Chinese-speaking voters will lose their voting rights even earlier, due to Secretary of State William Galvin’s opposition to including candidate names in Chinese characters on the ballot.

After nearly a year of controversy, the City Council voted 13-0 last month on a home rule petition to extend Chinese and Vietnamese bilingual ballots for Boston voters and to allow inclusion of candidate names in Chinese characters. Some 300 elderly Asian American citizens filled City Council chambers to say, “Don’t turn back the clock on our voting rights!” Now that it has passed the City Council, the home rule petition must be approved by the state Legislature and the governor.

Bilingual ballots are most needed by the elderly, who are allowed to pass the U.S. citizenship exam in their native language if they have had permanent residence for upwards of 15 years, and who have the most difficulty learning English.

Asian Americans have made significant strides in increasing their political clout, electing Sam Yoon in 2005 as Boston’s first Asian American city councilor and re-electing him last November. Community issues like the demand for a Chinatown library or more affordable housing options are getting more and more attention. In 2007, when fully bilingual ballots were first provided to Chinese-speaking voters, Asian American voter turnout exceeded the general turnout for the first time in the city’s history.

If voting is a basic right of citizenship, then why is ensuring it such an uphill battle?

The primary opposition has come from the secretary of state. William Galvin has seized onto the argument that transliterating, or transferring, candidate names into Chinese characters “presents a significant potential for misleading or confusing voters and may unfairly influence the result of an election.”

But, as Gov. Deval Patrick wrote in a 1994 memo on transliteration while serving as head of civil rights at the Department of Justice: “A candidate’s name is one of the most important items of information sought by a voter before casting his or her ballot for a particular candidate.”

Unlike Spanish or Vietnamese, the Chinese language does not use the Western alphabet. Without fully bilingual ballots, most elderly Chinese voters memorize the order of candidates on the ballot in order to select the candidate of their choice, which can sometimes lead to mistaken votes. Others rely on a bilingual assistant to accompany them to the voting booth.

Transliteration is a way of transferring a word from one writing system into another when the two languages do not follow the same system. Chinese transliteration of candidate names has been practiced successfully in New York for 13 years, as well as for elections in Los Angeles County, Alameda County, Orange County, San Francisco County, Santa Clara County, and most recently here in the City of Boston in 2007.

Many of Galvin’s assertions — such as the mistaken notion that Mitt Romney’s name could mean “sticky rice” — come from an ignorance of the common, everyday practice of transferring Western names into Chinese characters.

But more than ignorance is at play.

For a full year, Galvin has outright refused requests from numerous members of the community to meet and discuss the issue. Letters from Asian American community organizations, voters, and candidates have gone completely unanswered since June of 2007. His staff states repeatedly that neither Secretary Galvin nor his staff will meet to discuss anything to do transliteration. Yet while he continued to decline repeated requests to meet from the community and City Council, he did go on talk radio to say that the Chinese community was unreasonably demanding “special treatment.”

Galvin knows he can count on a growing anti-immigrant political climate as part of the backdrop that allows him and the mainstream media to misrepresent the facts and poke fun at Chinese names.

Furthermore, the clock is ticking, as the Legislature’s formal session, when most bills are discussed and voted upon, will end in July. Newly enacted laws do not go into effect until 90 days after the governor’s approval. But if action is taken quickly on the bill, Chinese-speaking voters could still protect their equal access to the vote in time for the November presidential election.

Asian Americans will hold a rally today, June 19, at the State House that takes its inspiration from African American history. Participants will honor and learn from the civil rights struggles that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act and paved the way for other communities of color and linguistic minorities. That struggle stretched over many years, and was sometimes violently attacked. But because of the depth and breadth of the community’s involvement, it could not be defeated.

Lydia Lowe is the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association and part of the Coalition for Asian American Voting Rights.