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Asian activists head to Hill, call for bilingual ballot bill

Jared Lindh

“Elections have to be precise,” Galvin , saying that transliteration can have “unintended negative inferences.”

His office struck the same tone rang this week.

“The secretary feels that transliteration is too imprecise, and leads to confusion,” Galvin spokesman Brian McNiss told the Banner. “His position has not changed.”

To some, Galvin’s decision seems to contradict a crucial American principle.

“This country is all about equal rights, and this is the exact opposite of equal rights,” said Richard Chen, 21, a resident of Houston who is in town visiting family.

Transliteration is a method of converting words from one language into another when the two languages do not follow the same writing system. Advocates argue the practice is necessary for ballots because candidates’ Western names do not have corresponding Mandarin translations, and that transliteration can mean the difference between voters understanding for whom they are casting their ballots and not.

Standard Mandarin is the official language of China. Cantonese, a southern Chinese dialect, is spoken throughout Chinatown. Though there are differences between the two in pronunciation, they are written the same, Lowe said.

Despite the fact that candidates’ names are regularly transliterated in Boston’s Chinese-language newspapers, they have been stricken from the ballot.

For the demonstrators, the absence of readily available information is frustrating.

“[Chinese-speaking residents] are very accustomed to getting that information and knowing what is going on — there are five Chinese-language newspapers in Chinatown alone that cover politics [on the] local, state and federal levels,” said Shuya Ohno, director of communications for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and a participant in the speak out. “However, when they go to the ballot box, they are not allowed to read the information like they are used to.”

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.

The agreement is set to expire in December. The demonstrators said they fear it will not be extended.

“The state of Massachusetts is ignoring the fact that people are being discriminated against, that access to the vote is being denied to tens of thousands of citizens in Boston alone,” said Ohno.