Earlier this month Assembly Bill 57, introduced by Assemblyman Evan Low from Silicon Valley, was sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature. The bill would change how a candidate’s name is translated and listed on local ballot — a big deal in places like San Francisco, where Chinese voters who may or may not speak proficient English make up a significant portion of the electorate.
Up until now in San Francisco, both Chinese and non-Chinese candidates often listed Chinese names that help them “appear” Chinese for name recognition among Chinese-speaking voters. But now with AB57, which would require the names of non-Chinese candidates to be translated phonetically, they will have to find another way to connect with Chinese-speaking voters.
While the bill sounds just about as exciting as Linguistics 101, the reality is that it may fundamentally change how candidates approach Chinese voters in San Francisco. According to the World Journal, a local Chinese newspaper, when California treasurer and former Supervisor Fiona Ma was running for the state Treasurer seat in 2018, her Chinese name by birth did not appear on the translated ballots. It was frustrating for her as she has used her Chinese name in all translated ballots previously in local elections in San Francisco, which likely boosted votes for her among Chinese speaking voters. AB57 would ensure someone with a character-based name by birth, like Treasurer Ma, would be able to list her Chinese name on the translated ballot. In other words, candidates who are Chinese Americans will be able to stand out as “real” Chinese, while their competitors will remain as, well, non-Chinese,
Two decades ago, non-Chinese candidates using a Chinese name were seen as doing something simply respectful — a novelty, essentially — to court Chinese voters. But now it’s no novelty. In 2019, many local candidates in San Francisco, especially the successful ones, are believed to have often benefited from using “authentic” looking Chinese names, which have helped them garner votes from Chinese speaking voters simply because they “appear” Chinese on ballots. It is the unspoken identity political trick among campaigns. I personally have provided names for colleagues for their work and a few ended up running for office. While it is no guarantee of a winning campaign, it does bring them a greater level of name recognition among Chinese-speaking voters.
One “translates” a non-Chinese candidate’s name, and hopefully it sounds as closely to their English name as possible, but the key is to make sure it looks like an “authentic” Chinese name, which typically only has three characters and with great symbolism and meaning. In a worst case scenario for democracy, but probably the best-case scenario for the lucky few non-Chinese candidates with great Chinese names, some unsuspecting Chinese-speaking voters may just assume the candidate is Chinese based on ballot materials and cast their votes in support based on the name alone.
If it becomes legally required for non-Chinese candidates to have their names phonetically translated instead of allowing them to use character-based names generated by savvy campaign consultants, they could no longer “appear” Chinese on ballots. How will it change their approach to courting Chinese speaking voters?
And what is interesting to me is, how will our local Department of Elections be “verifying” people that have been using the names for at least two years in the event the Governor signs to approve AB57 in the coming days.
Connie Chan has worked for more than a decade as a communications and policy advisor. In that time she has held positions with the District Attorney’s Office, Recreation and Parks and City College of San Francisco, and has served as a legislative aide to two city supervisors. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.