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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Names, Languages, Ballots

Our chapter on elections and campaigns discusses the importance of ballot design and other technical aspects of the voting process. Demographic change creates new issues.

Ching Ching Ni reports at The Los Angeles Times:
When Li Zheng Ping ran for Superior Court judge in San Francisco last year, he seemed destined to do well with Chinese-speaking voters.

His common Chinese last name, Li, made him instantly familiar. And his first name, Zheng Ping — which means "Correct Fair" — could not have been more tailor-made for the job.

Small matter that the man going by the name Li Zheng Ping was not, in fact, Chinese. In using a Chinese name for campaign purposes, Michael Nava simply was taking advantage of a little-known, perfectly legal opportunity.

And for good reason.

According to the latest census, Asian Americans now make up 15.5% of California's population. Their population has grown 33% in the last decade, while the state's population as a whole has grown 10%.

But roughly 40% of the state's Asian American voters speak limited English, said Eugene Lee, voting rights project director for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles. "A lot of ethnic voters only read the ethnic media. They only recognize the candidate names in those languages," he said.

The federal Voting Rights Act requires that when state and local jurisdictions have sizable numbers of people who speak limited English, ballots and other election-related information be translated.

But it does not regulate the conversion of English names into languages such as Chinese.

In San Francisco, Michael Nava ("Correct and Fair") ended up losing to the incumbent, Richard Ulmer. The Chinese ballot featured only Ulmer's last name. It was translated phonetically to Ao Ma, which means "Australia Horse."