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Translation not included
In wake of reported election-day trickery. Chinese ballot urged
Boston Globe
By Ric Kahn

By the time Henry Yee entered his polling place last month, he was certain which City Council candidates he wanted to vote for.

He'd read about them in his Chinese-language newspaper, heard their positions carom through the streets of Chinatown in his native tongue.

Yet when Yee moved to cast his ballot, he paused, awkwardly.

Yee, 74, said he cannot read English, and so the candidates' names appeared to him as a big blur. It was as if, he agreed, an English-speaking voter were trying to de cipher Chinese characters.

Yee said he did not want to hold up the voting line, so he asked a bilingual poll worker to help him decode the words.

Yee, a US citizen by way of Hong Kong and a leader of the Boston Chinatown Resident Association, said he knows a better way to handle a voting process he considers precious.

''Of course it is good to have a Chinese ballot,'' Yee said through an interpreter from the Chinese Progressive Association. ''Of course, it will go more smoothly and quickly and less confusion with Chinese.''

Neighborhood activists say that although Yee ended up voting for the candidates he wanted, the kind of linguistic fluster he experienced led at least eight other Chinese voters to allege irregularities.

The activists said that at least one city-employed poll worker -- or possibly someone posing as such, or mistaken for one -- improperly directed voters to cast their lot for candidates not of their own choosing during last month's preliminary election.

With the presidential election on the horizon, the activists say they are primed to turn Yee's tale -- a kind of ''ballad of the bilingual ballot'' -- into their political protest song of this voting season.

''The situation, with so many elderly relying on poll workers, is more open to abuse,'' said Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, a Chinatown advocacy group that plans to lobby the city on the issue.

Lowe's group is collecting affidavits from voters who contend they were wronged during last month's preliminary election, adding them to a complaint letter Lowe has sent to the city.

In one case, said Lowe, an elderly Chinese man told her that after he asked for help, someone at the polls took his ballot and completed it for him, telling him one of his candidates was no good. Lowe said he told her that in the end, he wasn't sure precisely whom he voted for, and he blamed his lack of English for making him feel vulnerable.

''They tricked me,'' she quoted him as saying.

Nancy Lo, chairwoman of the Boston Election Commission, said a preliminary investigation has not turned up any evidence that any city poll worker in Chinatown was involved in any voting improprieties. Furthermore, she said, a description of the purported poll worker described by some Chinese voters does not fit anyone who was working the Chinatown site for the city during the Sept. 23 preliminary.

However, Lo has asked for more detailed information and added: ''If we find wrongdoing . . . we will take action.''

As for aiding Chinese-speaking voters, Lo said the city provides both bilingual poll workers and voting instructions. She said the idea of printing ballots in Chinese is just not feasible at this time.

Currently, the city provides ballots in English and Spanish, a duality required under a complicated federal formula based on the minority's population and its English proficiency.

Lo said that if she offered ballots in Chinese, other linguistic minorities would be clamoring for the same. In a city where 140 languages are spoken, where the names on the ballots can vary by district, and where there are over 250 precincts, Lo said it would be a logistical nightmare to try to satisfy everyone.

''If you do it in Chinese,'' she said, ''you should also do it for all the other languages.''

Voting rights activists say that bilingual ballots in Chinese would be a good place to start.

They say that such ballots would provide a buffer between voters, political campaigners, and city poll workers.

''It would be a firewall,'' said Kathy Brown, coordinator of the Boston Tenant Coalition, which is a member of the Multilingual Voting Rights Coalition.

Voting-rights activists believe that Chinese ballots not only would help decrease fraud, but also increase voting.

''People in many communities are intimidated by the voting process, even . . . English-speaking voters,'' said George Pillsbury, policy director of Boston VOTE, a nonpartisan group that promotes greater participation at the polls.

Lo said the city is committed to inclusion and is trying to remove obstacles piece by piece.

This election, she said, the focus was on streamlining the process by replacing the old lever voting machines with optical scanners.

Lo said that if federal funds are available in the next few years to help the city install audio machines that would allow the visually impaired to more independently cast their ballots, she would look into adding foreign-language translations to that system to aid immigrant voters. ''It's possible,'' she said.

Lowe said that for Chinese voters, change can't come soon enough. Already, she said, she fears linguistic distress at the polls is chipping away at gains made in registering voters.

For example, she said the Chinese man who was befuddled when he left the polls felt he was such a victim of election-day chicanery that he vowed to skip next month's City Council final. Lowe said he told her: ''I'm not going to vote Nov. 4.''

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.