The New York Times

September 20, 2009

About New York


Before Victories on Ballot, a Fight to Be Able to Read It




Behind the gray curtain of a voting booth in Chinatown, Fun Mae Eng pulled a slip of paper from her pocket. She had never voted for president before. She did not read or write English. But on the paper, she had drawn the letters that represented the candidate’s name.


First was a C.


She looked for the shape tucked somewhere in the curls and lines of black that to the English speaker instantly form words and a ballot full of names. To Ms. Eng, these symbols were mute. She hunted down the unclosed circle that is a C. Then: L-I-N-T-O-N.


“Then I pulled the lever,” recalled Ms. Eng, 76, who worked in garment factories. “The slip of paper was the only way I could know.”


At the time Ms. Eng cast that ballot, in 1992, Chinese people had been living in New York for more than a century, but not one had been elected to the City Council or any other government position of importance. Indeed, for much of that time, they were barred from citizenship in a country they had helped build.


After Chinese workers arrived by the thousands to build railroads and dig mines in the 19th century, Congress enacted a series of laws, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prohibited the naturalization of Chinese residents and banned nearly all additional immigration from China. Its provisions were eased in 1943.


Last week, two Chinese-American candidates won Democratic primaries for the City Council, including the first ever from Chinatown in Manhattan; another Chinese-American got the most votes in the race for city comptroller, which will be decided in a runoff. And Kevin D. Kim, who won the Democratic nomination for a Council seat in northeast Queens, will be the first Korean-American member if he wins the general election.


For Asian-Americans, there was no march from Selma, no summoning of America’s better angels.


This was history made literally an inch at a time.


Shortly after Ms. Eng voted for Bill Clinton, a group of Chinese-Americans approached the city’s Board of Elections with a modest-sounding proposal: that voting machines include Chinese translations of the candidates’ names in districts where many Chinese lived.


It was out of the question, the board said.


“There is no human way this can be done,” Commissioner Paul Mejias said at the time. “It’s not because we don’t want to do it. We all want to do it. But look at the machines. It just won’t fit.”


In a few years, the board promised, the city would have new electronic voting machines with space for multiple languages. Until then, Chinese-speaking voters would have to make do with paper ballots.


The response exasperated the activists. “They have constantly said that if we just wait, it will happen,” said Margaret Fung, the executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.


Some of the protest tools were conventional — there was a rally, and petitions signed by tens of thousands of people — but the most eloquent statement was the simplest.


“We got a printer, Corky Lee, and a graphic designer, Ed Lai, to make a ballot with the exact specifications to show that it could fit in the chute of the machine,” Ms. Fung said last week.


“There was about an inch of space,” Mr. Lee recalled. “We pulled a proof to indicate how it could be done and meet their requirements for a die-cut space, with a little square where the lever would mark the selection.”


They presented the sample ballot, with the name of the mayor at the time, David N. Dinkins, rendered in English and Chinese, with room, if needed, for Korean.


They also had the law on their side. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 laid the groundwork, outlawing tactics used primarily in the South to block voting by African-Americans, including literacy tests and interpretations of constitutional writings. Later federal laws required election boards to provide bilingual ballots, forms and interpreters in districts with significant numbers of people who did not speak English. By 1992, these provisions covered Asian-Americans.


Acting on a complaint from Ms. Fung’s group, the Justice Department found in 1993 that the city’s Board of Elections was violating the law.


That was when the board said there was “no human way” to put Chinese on the ballot.


“Someone from Department of Justice wanted me to explain in plain language to the board how it could,” Mr. Lee said.


The board relented.


It turns out that Chinese speakers would have been a long time waiting for the board’s preferred solution, the electronic machines: The city is still using the old mechanical machines.


The turnout in districts where Asian-Americans won primaries last week was 17 percent to 18 percent, about 50 percent higher than the city’s average. Ms. Eng no longer takes slips of paper into the voting booth.


“There are so many more voting now,” she said. “Before, if you didn’t know the name in English, how are you going to vote?”




Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company