When Li Zheng Ping ran for Superior Court judge in San Francisco last year, he seemed destined to do well with Chinese-speaking voters.
His common Chinese last name, Li, made him instantly familiar. And his first name, Zheng Ping — which means "Correct Fair" — could not have been more tailor-made for the job.
Small matter that the man going by the name Li Zheng Ping was not, in fact, Chinese. In using a Chinese name for campaign purposes, Michael Nava simply was taking advantage of a little-known, perfectly legal opportunity.
And for good reason.
According to the latest census, Asian Americans now make up 15.5% of California's population. Their population has grown 33% in the last decade, while the state's population as a whole has grown 10%.
But roughly 40% of the state's Asian American voters speak limited English, said Eugene Lee, voting rights project director for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles. "A lot of ethnic voters only read the ethnic media. They only recognize the candidate names in those languages," he said.
The federal Voting Rights Act requires that when state and local jurisdictions have sizable numbers of people who speak limited English, ballots and other election-related information be translated.
But it does not regulate the conversion of English names into languages such as Chinese.
State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) is trying to change that.
"This is an issue that affects the integrity of the ballot," said Yee. "There are no rules on the books to deal with it."
In 2009, Yee, whose Mandarin name is Yu Yin Liang, got a bill through the Legislature that would have required candidates to use phonetic transliterations of their names in election materials printed in character-based scripts such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean — unless they could prove they already had established character-based names, either given to them at birth or in regular use for at least two years.
The bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said local jurisdictions should set their own rules. Yee introduced it again this year, and it passed the state Senate late last month.
Yee and his staff say the bill is intended to keep candidates from trying to deceive. "It is equivalent to an individual changing his name just for the ballot to Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan," said Adam Keigwin, Yee's chief of staff, whose Chinese name is Kai Yun, meaning "Victory Cloud."
They admit that it's not a big problem just yet but say it could be one soon.
Even without intentional deception, the translated ballots — and candidates' lack of knowledge about them — can lead to name problems of all sorts.
State Assemblyman Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park) learned the importance of his Chinese name when he ran for office for the first time in 2006.
Eng is well-known in the Chinese American community as Wu Guo Qing, a name given to him by his late grandfather, who worked as a houseboy for the president of Levi Strauss & Co. Wu is his Mandarin family name. "Guo Qing" means "National Day."
But Eng, who does not speak or read Chinese, said he was not aware at the time that he could use his Chinese name when registering his candidacy. The Chinese-language voters guide gave him a new name meant to sound like his English one: Mai Ke En. Rough translation: "Wheat Can Kindness."
"I was horrified," he said.
With two months to go, the campaign suddenly had a big problem. But they were able to reach thousands of voters to explain that his Chinese name was translated wrong — and in the end, Eng won.
His wife, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), had a different sort of name trouble when she ran for Congress in 2009.
One of her opponents was a Monterey Park city councilwoman named Betty Tom Chu, who dropped her maiden name, Tom, in the campaign.
In English, it was Betty Chu versus Judy Chu. In Chinese, Zhao Mei Sheng versus Zhao Mei Xin. Betty Chu's first name means "Beautiful Life." Judy Chu's means "Beautiful Heart."
Judy Chu's campaign felt Betty Chu was trying to confuse people, a charge Betty Chu denies as "ridiculous." Still, to try to set Judy Chu apart, her campaign singled out the one different word in her Chinese name — "Xin," or "heart" – and put drawings of big red hearts on their Chinese fliers.
Judy Chu won that race, becoming the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress. But her campaign might have saved itself a lot of work if Yee's proposed state law had been in place and had prevented Betty Chu from tweaking her name, said a former campaign consultant, Clark Lee.
Perhaps. But Clayton Dube, a China scholar at USC, says that requiring phonetic transliterations of English names still leaves room for creativity. "The Chinese language has so many homonyms, people can be endlessly clever in combining words to convey some kind of meaning," Dube said.
The Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office uses a translation service to create election materials in multiple languages and it also provides phonetic translations of English names when candidates don't submit their own character-based names.
If the new law passes, the registrar's office might need to hire extra staff to verify candidates' claims that they have existing Asian names, said Efrain Escobedo, executive liaison for the L.A. County registrar-recorder. But the greater worry, he said, would be having to play judge if such names are disputed.
As for the power of a Chinese name at the polls, the jury may still be out.
In San Francisco, Michael Nava ("Correct and Fair") ended up losing to the incumbent, Richard Ulmer. The Chinese ballot featured only Ulmer's last name. It was translated phonetically to Ao Ma, which means "Australia Horse."