Chinatown Ballot Shows 'Republican' as 'Democrat'

Learning to vote before the Chinatown election: Voters couldn't have been prepared for poorly translated ballots and conflicting instructions.
photo: Fiona Yung

NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 13—Some Chinese Americans may have inadvertently voted for the wrong candidate because the ballots were translated incorrectly.

At six voting sites in Flushing, Queens, where there are large Chinese American populations, the party headings for all state races were wrong. The "Democratic" label was translated as "Republican," and "Republican" was rendered as "Democratic."

"I just don't understand why they can't get the Chinese ballots right," says Chinatown voter Stephanie Woo. "It just shows how little they care."

"The Board of Elections has been careless. This is just inexcusable."

Woo isn't alone in her outrage. "The Board of Elections has been careless," says Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "This is just inexcusable."

Fung says her group has notified the U.S. Department of Justice, but she doubts whether the mistakes affected the outcome in those precincts.

What matters more to community advocates is the way a long laundry list of errors by the New York City Board of Elections may have served to disenfranchise Chinese Americans. Though official numbers from this election aren't yet available, in 1996, about 30 percent of the city's Chinese American voters depended on Chinese ballots. As many as 70 percent of Chinatown residents do not speak English, and only about 30 percent of eligible voters are registered.

This year, says the AALDEF, Chinese Americans in New York City voted in record numbers—but when they got to the polls they found the Board of Elections wasn't prepared to deal with the heavy turnout. At least three voting sites in Manhattan's Chinatown lacked adequate interpreters. At P.S. 2, the Board of Elections promised five interpreters; one showed up. Some sites ran out of Chinese-language voting materials. And the Chinese characters on the ballots were so small the Board of Elections had to provide magnifying glasses.

The problems extended past the polling place. Many Chinese American voters did not receive voter registration cards they had requested by mail or they received cards with wrong names and addresses. The Cantonese instructions given on the Board of Elections voter hotline were so poor that bilingual Kymie Hwang says she had to listen to them in English before she could understand the Cantonese.

Chinese Americans who used absentee ballots were faced with flawed instructions in the race for state Supreme Court justice. The English directions read "Vote for any THREE." But the Chinese ones gave conflicting orders: First people were asked to "Vote for any FIVE," then they were told to "Vote for any THREE."

Advocates say the message to Chinese Americans is clear: You and your vote don't matter. According to the AALDEF, not one of New York's 1 million Asian Americans has ever been elected to city or state office, a fact that illustrates the extent to which Chinese Americans are estranged from the political process.

Since 1992, the law has required that New York County must provide English, Spanish, and Chinese ballots, voting materials, and language assistance at polling places. So why did all these errors happen?

The New York City Board of Elections sends the machine and paper ballots to different translations companies. In addition, the NYC elections office does not have a paid in-house Chinese language proofreader to verify the instructions or the candidates' names on any of the ballots. "We rely on the accuracy of our translation companies," says Naomi Bernstein, spokesperson for the NYC board. She added that staff members "who are Asian" look at the ballots.

Daniel De Francesco, the executive director at the NYC elections board, says the Asian staff there consists of "one gentleman who speaks some Chinese and a couple of Koreans."

The task of checking the translations largely falls to Board of Elections clerks. "We have no one who actually knows the language who proofreads," says clerk Matt Graves. "We have employees that have Chinese language skills that read it, but there is no one employed to do it. It's based on a sight comparison."

This year's paper ballots were translated by Global Word, Inc., of New Jersey. Alan Bertelle, a senior account manager there, says the company relies on the elections board to send any corrections.

Having monitored Chinatown elections since 1992, Peter Lau of the Chinatown Voter Education Alliance says translation mistakes happen every year. Lau says the elections board has long been reluctant to make provisions for Chinese speakers. In 1994, he recalls, the board agreed to translate the instructions, but not the candidates' names.

"First, there was not enough time to put their names on the ballot, and secondly there wasn't enough space on the ballot," he says. "Ultimately we threatened to sue them. We were about to file the lawsuit, when the Board of Elections agreed to include the candidates' names. Suddenly, they found enough space on the ballots."

Lau says he wants the board to hire someone to review the Chinese translations. "Otherwise," he says, "there is no quality control."

The kinds of mistakes plaguing the Chinese ballot haven't been as big a factor for the other non-English ballots New York City is required to offer. "We've never had a problem with Spanish in a thousand years," says De Francesco. "We have staff members that speak Spanish."

Some Chinese American leaders suggest the answer is for members of the community both to collaborate with and work for the elections board. "Chinese translation is difficult," says Jenny Lam, the Chinatown Democratic Party district leader. "That's something they (the elections board) need to work on, and we need to make it known. Not to be cynical, but do we have people who are perfectly bilingual in the community who are willing to work at the Board of Elections? Or are bilingual people more willing to work for the private sector?"

Lam suggests the Chinese community should focus on educating and registering voters, rather than harping on Board of Elections negligence. "It's better to work with people, even if you don't agree with them."

But getting clout with the city brass may not be possible until Chinese Americans become a significant force in elections. "When you have numbers," Lam says, "then your voice will be heard."

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