Capitol Alert

California candidates can use foreign language birth names on ballots under new law

Candidates with birth names in foreign languages will be able to use those names on California ballots under a law Gov. Gavin Newsom approved Friday.

It’s a change intended to help candidates with birth names in character-based languages like Chinese, Japanese and Korean ensure they’re identifiable to people reading the ballot in those languages.

The ballots won’t be seen by ever voter. Only voters who request ballots in different languages will notice the change.

State Treasurer Fiona Ma, who has a Cantonese birth name, says she’s one of the candidates the law will help.

Prior to running for treasurer, she had run for local offices and interacted with Chinese constituents using her Cantonese name, which is pronounced “Ma Sigh Wan,” according to a letter Ma sent Newsom asking him to sign the bill. But when she ran for statewide office in 2018, a transliterated version of her English name appeared on Cantonese ballots: “Fei O Na Ma.”

“I have never used this transliterated name before,” she wrote. “This is a very critical issue for (Asian/Pacific Islander) candidates like myself, and especially for non-English voters, because they do not recognize who ‘Fei O Na Ma’ is when they see this name on the ballot.”

Moving forward, Ma will be able to use her birth name when she runs for office under the new law. She’s already established a fund to raise money for a 2022 reelection campaign and has said she will run for governor when Newsom is termed out in 2026.

The new law, AB 57 by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, will take effect next year. Under the new policy, candidate names will be translated phonetically into character-based languages unless a candidates prove they have a different birth names or are known by a different name in foreign language-speaking communities.

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, nine California counties provide ballots in character-based languages: Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Contra Costa, Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Orange and San Diego.

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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