Ballot translation bill among casualties on Beacon Hill

Backers of translating candidates' names into Chinese characters on election ballots won a partial victory last week, adding a $20,000 proposal to provide "sample" ballots for Asian-American voters to use in the September primary.

Supporters were prepared to forge ahead with plans to independently print thousands of their own "sample" ballots in case that failed, with ballots voluntarily created and printed, thanks to an anonymous donor and a group of local organizations providing translations.

The move comes as they were dealt a setback last week on Beacon Hill in an attempt to get the House and Senate to pass a bill allowing for transliterated ballots in Boston.

"It's far from over," said state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson.

After meeting with Asian-American groups supporting the translated ballots, Wilkerson unsuccessfully attempted to add transliteration through an amendment to bills allowing for voters to register on Election Day and electing a president through a national popular vote.

Both bills were among the many that failed to reach the governor's desk amid the flurry of late-night activity at the State House last week. The legislative session ended on July 31. Other bills which did not pass by the deadline included legislation aimed at conserving publicly assisted affordable housing, mandating nurse staffing levels and Gov. Deval Patrick's criminal offender record information (CORI) reform effort.

A bill pushing for transliteration, approved by the Boston City Council, also did not make it, but Wilkerson said House leaders have agreed to hold a hearing on the practice in the next several weeks.

The transliteration push is opposed by Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees elections. He supports bilingual ballots, but says transliteration of candidate names is imprecise and could confuse voters and disrupt elections. The Chinese language is composed of thousands of characters, each having a meaning. Supporters of the practice dispute that argument, saying transliteration already occurs in other countries and the Chinese-language press.

"Secretary Galvin is using enormous amounts of political capital on this issue and it's flabbergasting, given how simple the issue is," said Councillor at-Large Sam Yoon. "And for someone whose job it is to assure people have access to state government, it's also bewildering how little he's engaged his constituents on his problems with this."

A Galvin spokesman said Galvin's position on the issue is well-known to both opponents and proponents.

"He did not spend political capital on this bill," said the spokesman, Brian McNiff, who noted that Galvin has pushed for bilingual ballots in the past.

Ballots for the September primary have already gone to the printer, and Galvin had opposed allowing for "sample" ballots, with the names transliterated, to be distributed through a funding mechanism in a separate bill, according to Wilkerson. Last week, Wilkerson had unsuccessfully tried to add funding for sample ballots to one of the bills that was flying between the chambers.

"We thought there'd be no opposition," she said. "[Galvin] fought it tooth and nail."

Patrick's criminal offender record information (CORI) reform bill was also among those that died after lawmakers adjourned early Friday morning. Reform backers say the records are sometimes inaccurate and the system can be a burden for individuals seeking jobs and have a minor criminal record.

The bill proposed reducing the waiting periods for felons to see their records sealed from 15 years to 10 and to five from 10 for misdemeanors. The Legislature's Judiciary Committee had endorsed a revamped version of the bill, but Patrick expressed coolness to it.

House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, a North Reading Republican, said, "I think [Patrick] basically doused it when he said, 'Well, I'm not completely there yet.' That cold water pretty much doused anything getting done."

Patrick said the criticism was inaccurate. "We want CORI reform, we're going to get [CORI reform], and we'll be back at it in the next legislative session," he said.

The crime package also included gun bills limiting the sales of handguns to one a month per buyer and enhancing information sharing through community programs targeting at-risk youth.

In a Tuesday press conference, Patrick said he hoped to try again on those bills next year.

"We still have issues of personal security in lots of neighborhoods," he told reporters.

Legislators will still meet in informal sessions through the end of the year, but controversial bills are unlikely to pass, since it takes only one lawmaker to object during those times.

Such is the case with Election Day registration, a bill never considered in the House after it passed the Senate, and National Popular Vote, which has drawn some opposition from Republicans in the Senate and some House Democrats.

"In effect, it's dead," said Sen. Ed Augustus, a Worcester Democrat who is co-chair of the Election Laws Committee.

Some activists remained hopeful, noting that the last time lawmakers recessed until January in 2006, 458 bills were enacted.

"We're looking at all the options," said Pam Wilmot, head of government watchdog group Common Cause Massachusetts, which pushed for the National Popular Vote bill. The bill would have directed the state's 12 electors in the Electoral College to vote for the winner of the national popular vote, which opponents charged circumvented the U.S. Constitution.

Other items lawmakers will have to take care of include the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's debt woes and the skyrocketing cost of the state's health care reform effort. MBTA officials have warned of another increase in fees if the Legislature doesn't save the agency from the billions in debt it has racked up over the years, and the state's bid to get everybody enrolled in a health care plan has lead to increased budget costs.

"We have to get those two under control," said state Rep. Marty Walsh.

The state's budget cannot sustain continued bailouts of either the agency or health care reform. "We need to come up with another creative way," he said.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to incorrect information provided to the Reporter, portions of the August 7 article in our print edition pertaining to transliteration was in error. In our print edition, we reported that activists planned to forge ahead with privately funded plans to print 20,000 of their own sample ballot. That is incorrect. In fact, as reported above, lawmakers added a $20,000 proposal to provide "sample" ballots for Asian-American voters to use in the September primary.


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