Galvin still opposes 'Sticky Rice' ballot translations

A proposal before the Boston City Council to provide bilingual ballots and translate candidates' names into Chinese characters appears poised to reignite debate over the practice as the state's chief elections officer says he remains opposed to the translating.

As part of a 2006 law stemming from an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, Boston provides bilingual ballots for Chinese and Vietnamese-speaking voters.

But the agreement expires in December 2008, which has prompted Sam Yoon, councillor at-large, to file a bill making the agreement permanent.

Otherwise, gains made in voting rights for Vietnamese and Chinese voters will take a "giant leap backward," Yoon says.

The proposal benefits elderly immigrants, particularly the first generation who came over in the 1970s and became U.S. citizens in their own language, according to Yoon and advocates pushing the proposal.

Hiep Chu, executive director of the non-profit Viet-AID, said 75 percent of Vietnamese locally and nationally are foreign-born, and most are elderly and parents in their 50s.

Councillors Michael Ross and John Connolly have also signed onto the petition. "This is about access to the ballot," Ross said. "This can only lead to more engagement."

Ross, whose Government Operations committee hears the proposal next week, said he spoke with the city's election commissioner, who said it wouldn't cost more money and could potentially save money since it could cut down on the number of translators needed at the polls.

But Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees the state's elections, says he opposes the proposal when it comes to the "transliteration" portion. While the Vietnamese language uses Roman letters, the Chinese language is composed of thousands of characters, each having a meaning.

"Transliteration of names into Chinese characters is an inherently imprecise effort to approximate the phonetics that make up the name through a combination of Chinese characters that sound most like the English name," Galvin spokeswoman Nancy Driscoll said in a statement. "The Secretary believes that transliteration presents a significant potential for misleading or confusing voters and may unfairly influence the result of an election or give rise to litigation that would disrupt the smooth and orderly administration of the election."

Galvin told the Boston Globe last year that if transliterated to Chinese, former Gov. Mitt Romney's name could be interpreted as "Sticky Rice." Other politicians would potentially suffer a similar fate, he said.

Activists dispute the assertions, saying transliteration is something frequently done in other countries and in the Chinese-language press. "It's a very common thing that's done all over the world," says Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.

Derogatory Chinese characters would not be used, she said, and pointed to provisions in Yoon's proposal that would have the names 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.

Upon approval, candidates would get a written copy of the proposed transliteration and have seven days to ask for a modification, or decline to have his or her name transliterated on the ballot.

"By having an official name on the ballot, it eliminates confusion," Lowe said.

Yoon notes that Boston has had two successful elections under the current set-up. "Let's not turn the clock back," he said.

Mayor Thomas Menino declined immediate comment on the issue, while City Council President Maureen Feeney said she wanted to listen to the debate at the scheduled hearing.

"I think I'm going to wait and see, hear both sides, weigh the issues," she said.

The home rule petition, which must be approved by the full City Council, the mayor, the state Legislature, and the governor, is scheduled for a hearing on Monday at 4 p.m. at City Hall.