In a video of an April 7 state legislative hearing, Texas lawmaker Betty Brown and Organization of Chinese Americans representative Ramey Ko discuss proposed voter identification requirements in Texas. Ko notes that some people of Asian descent have had trouble voting in a number of states because some of their identification papers use legal names transliterated from Asian languages while others include nicknames adopted for everyday use. Others have had problems because of variations in how their names are spelled on documents. Both Brown and Ko agree voters should present proof of identity to participate in elections.
During the discussion, Brown asks Ko if “it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here.” She immediately adds that she is “not talking about changing your name,” but then later asks “if there were some means by which you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that was easier for Americans to deal with?”
Brown’s comments have generated a lot of attention in the Asian-American community, including the blog Asian-Nation, the Asian American Action Fund, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Organization of Chinese Americans. I personally find Brown’s comments troubling. The United States is a land of immigrants, and the diversity of our names is a part of our cultural heritage. People of any background – Asian, Middle Eastern, African, Latin American or European – should not be asked to adopt different names for identification purposes because others find their true names hard to spell or pronounce.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that many immigrants and naturalized citizens do adopt nicknames for daily use that often are included on common forms of identification such as student IDs, work IDs and driver’s licenses. Should people be allowed to use these documents to register to vote and, when necessary, prove their identity at the polls? Or should they be required to show additional documents that list their legal names, such as naturalization certificates or passports? When there are variations in spelling, how much discretion should voter registration and poll workers have in verifying identification? How can these workers certify people as eligible to vote without unduly burdening anyone?