Monday, August 4, 2008

美國大選 2008﹕Bilingual ballot bill languishes, but community power keeps growing

by Lydia Lowe

The Asian American community won unanimous passage of the Home Rule Petition to extend Chinese and Vietnamese bilingual ballots in May, but the state legislative session closed on July 31st with little chance of enacting the bill into law.

The community sought legislation, to extend Chinese and Vietnamese bilingual ballots beyond the December 2008 expiration date and to specifically authorize inclusion of Chinese names on the ballot, after Secretary of State William Galvin repeatedly refused to meet with Asian American leaders to discuss the issues.

Over the past year, nearly two thousand community members have written letters to city and state officials. Voters have engaged in a number of lobby days first at City Hall and then at the State House, and hundreds turned out for the City Council hearing in May and a civil rights speak-out at the State House in June. The Coalition for Asian American Voting Rights has involved more than 30 Asian American community organizations as well as advocacy groups like MassVOTE, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, and the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action.

As the two-year legislative session began winding to a close, elderly Chinatown voters began two weeks of daily visits and four days of public vigil in front of the State House. This week, the bill was finally admitted to the House of Representatives, just two days before the July 31 close of the formal two-year legislative session, making it highly unlikely for the bill to be passed this year. According to Massachusetts laws, all action taken during the informal session that runs through the rest of 2008 is defined as “of a non-controversial nature” and must be done by unanimous vote.

Since unanimous passage by the Boston City Council, every minor procedural step of the Home Rule Petition has moved at a snail's pace, including two weeks for Mayor Menino to sign the bill, one week for it to be sent to the State House clerk's office, three weeks to move from the clerk's office to the House Committee on Rules, and nearly five weeks to be admitted to the House of Representatives. All of these steps are at such an early level of the process that the legislation did not even have a bill number by the close of the session.
What’s the hold-up?

While it might seem harmless to provide bilingual ballots to ensure equal voting rights for elderly Asian American voters, the voting rights legislation hit a wall of opposition from early on.

The primary opposition has come from Secretary of State William Galvin, who has publicly opposed inclusion of Chinese names on the ballot for the past year. While Galvin has stated that he opposes transliteration of candidate names because of the potential to confuse voters, he has refused numerous requests from Asian American voters and community leaders to discuss his concerns. Individual voter complaints, public information requests, and over 1600 letters sent to his office have gone completely unanswered. Yet Galvin has taken the time to speak to the media on several occasions, including a talk-radio appearance last May in which he complained that Asian American voters were demanding “special treatment.”

Although he is the highest ranking official in charge of elections in Massachusetts, Galvin was not a named party in the US Department of Justice’s voting rights lawsuit against the City of Boston in 2005, and he was not at the table when the ensuing agreement was negotiated to launch Chinese and Vietnamese bilingual ballots. Political observers point to this omission as the source of Galvin’s immovable opposition. Unfortunately, it is the Asian American community—which also was not at the table for the 2005 agreement—that suffers.

As the official in charge of certifying all candidates, managing the state’s voter lists, administering all elections, and registering all lobbyists, the Secretary of State may not have convinced many elected officials with his views, but his powers make many reluctant to cross him.

Voting in the Fall 2008 Elections

Without the passage of new legislation this year, Chinese and Vietnamese bilingual ballots will end entirely in December 2008. But, due to Galvin’s opposition to including candidate names in Chinese, this year’s ballots for September 16 and November 4 will exclude transliterated candidate names—i.e., everything will be translated but the most important part of the ballot!

As an alternative to a fully bilingual ballot, Galvin has promoted the use of the AutoMark machine at polling station, an expensive new machine, designed to assist the visually impaired, which can read an audio recording of the ballot contents in Chinese to the voter. But with Chinese names banned from the ballot, the AutoMark machine will read the candidate names in English only, and thus be of little help to Chinese-speakers. At the Secretary of State’s urging, Boston’s Election Department is setting up orientations to the AutoMark machine in Chinatown this week.

State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, who represents Chinatown, proposes that the state print fully bilingual Chinese/English sample ballots to be distributed to all Chinese-speaking voters in Boston if the bilingual ballot bill does not pass this year. If her proposal is successful, the sample ballots would be implemented in the September and November elections. Short of a fully bilingual ballot, the sample ballot would be a useful voting aid for Chinese-speaking voters. It would also beg the question of why the state can’t print a fully bilingual ballot.

In January 2009, a new two-year legislative session will begin, when the community will need to choose whether or not to continue the fight to extend bilingual ballots.

While Secretary Galvin’s opposition is unlikely to change, the Coalition for Asian American Voting Rights has a half-year to strategize in order to motivate other officials to play a stronger advocacy role. A second-year campaign would begin with a more educated pool of city and state officials.

In the last decade, Chinatown has moved from political invisibility to become one of Boston’s most politically active neighborhoods. The bilingual ballot agreement itself resulted from an increasingly active voter population and many individual elderly citizens who spoke up for their voting rights and called for bilingual ballots. With the City of Boston’s launch of fully bilingual ballots in 2007, Chinatown’s voter turnout rate surpassed the citywide average for the first time. The community has suffered a temporary setback by failing to protect the bilingual ballot before it expires this year, and by failing to defeat Galvin’s banning of Chinese names on the ballot.

But, even in the face of this setback, the Asian American community has made gains as well.

The breadth of community leaders and groups that came together and contributed to the campaign signal recent efforts to reach a new level of operational unity and political maturity within the community. Thousands of voters have participated in the past year’s voting rights campaign, and hundreds now know their way to City Hall and the State House. Asian American voters felt their power this spring when Boston City Council rapidly turned around from a neutral position into unanimous support for the bilingual ballot bill. With a public city council hearing in May, the community brought to bear impressive numbers, moving personal testimony, and a wealth of factual information. The rules of the game are different in the State House, however, where inaction is all that is needed to defeat an initiative.

We appear to have lost this round, but the struggle for voting rights and political clout continues. The community needs to build on the gains we have made to increase our ability to influence policy decisions, pass legislation, and hold our elected officials accountable to the community’s priorities.

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