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Malden making strides with Chinese American voters

Ai Di Chen spoke at a virtual press conference announcing the report card on the city's progress in expanding voter access to Chinese-Americans.Greater Boston Legal Services (Custom credit)

For people with limited English skills, navigating the voting process can be a challenge. But Malden is helping show how communities can help make it easier for them.

A new report card issued by the Asian Pacific Islanders Civic Action Network found that Malden is making significant strides in expanding access to the ballot for residents lacking English proficiency within its sizable Chinese American community.

While Malden received an overall B- grade, leaders of the network and local Chinese American groups praised the city for recent progress in eliminating barriers to voting.

“Malden is off to a good start. It is really thinking how it can serve the community better,” said Karen Chen, executive director of the Boston-based Chinese Progressive Association, one of the lead groups within the civic action network.

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The report card highlights such city accomplishments as hiring an employee in the clerk’s office fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English; printing bilingual ballots for the November election; posting more Chinese language signs in polling places; and creating bilingual videos, voting materials, and postings on WeChat, a social media platform popular in the Chinese American community.

Starting next year, Malden also plans to include transliterations of candidates’ names on its ballots, and to train poll workers in anti-discrimination and ballot access.

“There are a lot of barriers to voting because of language, so to us it just makes sense to make it easier for people,” Chen said, calling such improvements “the low-hanging fruit” of expanding overall voter turnout.

“For Chinese speakers, it’s often things that are very simple and fundamental,” Chen said, including helping people register to vote and informing them where to vote and what procedures to follow at the polling place.

According to 2019 US Census figures, Asian Americans make up 22.5 percent of Malden’s estimated 60,470 residents, and community leaders say Chinese Americans are by far the largest segment of that population.

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The voter access effort grew out of monthly meetings Mayor Gary Christenson and other city officials have held since June with leaders of the Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition, other local groups, and Greater Boston Legal Services.

“Malden still has work to do, but the process it has used in working with community groups really is a model for other cities and towns,” said Alex Milvae, an attorney with Greater Boston’s Asian Outreach Unit.

Mai Du, a founding board member of the Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition, agreed the changes in Malden show what can happen when a city is willing to listen and work with advocacy groups.

“We didn’t feel like a small organization fighting city hall,” she said.

Since 2016, Malden has been legally obligated under the federal Voting Rights Act to meet certain requirements for enhancing access to the polls for Chinese Americans, according to Milvae. He said the city is now on its way to meeting those obligations, which were triggered when Malden’s Chinese population reached a certain threshold.

“Improving language access, especially in an area as important as voting, is essential in moving our city forward,” Christenson said by e-mail, praising the efforts of city and community participants in the effort. “I look forward to continuing our work in 2021.”

At a Dec. 2 virtual press conference announcing the scorecard, Malden resident Ai Di Chen, who immigrated from China in about 2010 and has limited English proficiency, said she first learned about voting several years ago and found the process challenging.

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“A lot of the information about voting and elections [is] in English so I didn’t know how to apply,” said Chen, whose remarks in Cantonese were translated into English. ”My polling place was at the Beebe School and when I used to go there and vote there were no interpreters. Thankfully my friend speaks English and helps me with the process.”

Ai Di Chen, who is not related to Karen Chen, said there was an added challenge to voting this year because “we had to mail in our ballots and for a lot of elderly voters this is a complicated process. But luckily the city of Malden hired a bilingual Chinese [staff member] in the election department and [she] came and taught us how to vote by mail.

“I hope that Malden can continue to improve on our interpretation services and other communities can also learn from Malden,” she said.

The Malden report card was the first to be issued for a community by the Asian Pacific Islanders Civic Action Network, but Milvae hopes to see the network issue similar ones in other communities with large Chinese-speaking populations, adding that it was a useful tool to assess voting barriers for other language groups.

“Having things like poll workers able to speak your language are positive signs that we are wanted,” Du said of immigrant communities, “that we hear you, we see you, we value your voice, and your vote counts.”

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John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.