Clocks wind down on ballot translation plan

Time is running out for a Boston City Council-endorsed proposal on bilingual ballots and the translation of candidates' names into Chinese characters, frustrated Asian-American activists say.

Mayor Thomas Menino signed the proposal after the city council unanimously approved the local legislation in mid-May, but the bill appears to be stalled on Beacon Hill.

The bill is the result of an expiring agreement for Boston to provide bilingual ballots for Chinese and Vietnamese-speaking voters. The proposal is aimed at elderly immigrants who arrived in the 1970s. Because it is a "home rule petition," the proposal must be approved by the Legislature and the governor.

The bill has drawn criticism from the Bay State's chief elections officer, Secretary of State William Galvin, who has called the bill unnecessary because bilingual ballots already exist.

The home-rule proposal was sent to state Rep. Mike Rush (D-West Roxbury), who has yet to file the bill in the Legislature.

"It's just been sitting there," said Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, which has been pushing the bill. "We don't understand why it's taken so many weeks to file. It just needs to be brought to the House clerk."

Rush did not return a phone call seeking comment and the House clerk's office, which has been hit with calls asking for the status of the legislation, said a bill hadn't been filed by the end of the day Tuesday.

Menino aides say the bill was sent to Rush because he is chair of the Boston delegation and it is customary for the chair to file home rule petitions.

But the chance for the legislation to go into effect for this September's primary is getting slimmer, Lowe said, since it must become law 90 days before an election. Lowe noted that Chinatown voters will see a contested Democratic primary, with former teacher Sonia Chang-Diaz running against state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson.

Add to that another timetable: the Legislature will break at the end of July for the rest of the year, and, because of the upcoming elections, won't return until January.

But Galvin says adding transliteration into the mix brings "terrible uncertainty" to the elections process, because no adequate way exists to properly translate names into Chinese characters.

"We've gone out of our way to print the ballot in Chinese. More importantly, since last year, we've also had equipment at the polls that has an audio component that recites the names in the Chinese language," he said in a May 14 interview with WBZ Radio.

Galvin said it was the case of the city council "bending to a private group, in this case a private association" and he was not surprised by the vote.

"I really think if a leaf blew in the window today, they'd vote for it," he said.

Activists quarrel with Galvin's claims. Transliteration occurs frequently in other countries and in the Chinese-language press, they say.

Under the proposal, candidate names would be prepared by a "qualified Chinese translator" and subject to a review by the city's Election Advisory Committee. The transliteration would then be subject to approval by the city's Election Commission or the secretary of state.

Candidates would then get a written copy of the proposed transliteration and be given a week to ask for a modification, or decline to have his or her name transliterated.

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