New York

Chinatown Ballot Shows ‘Republican’ as ‘Democrat’


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

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

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

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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